The Associated Press ranked Michigan No. 7 in the country in the preseason polls. The coaches put the Wolverines at No. 9. Either way expectations were high entering the season -- just as they should have been. Following an appearance in the National Championship game, such confidence was warranted, even if the team's top two scorers, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., were leaving for the NBA.
It took three games before Mitch McGary, a preseason All-American, would take the court. It was also three games before Michigan suffered its first loss of the season, to Iowa State, winners of its first 14 games before skidding and losing its last three. McGary was then able to play in Michigan's next seven games before having season-ending surgery on his back, which had been bothering him for months. With McGary in the lineup, Michigan went 4-4, which included two-point losses to Arizona (respectable) and Charlotte (bad).
Since McGary went out for the rest of the season, things have been a little bit different for the Wolverines. There have been zero losses despite a number of close calls. The last two games that the now-No. 21 Wolverines have played were both against top-10 teams, Wisconsin and Iowa. Now comes what could be the biggest test since the streak began: a road game at 7 p.m. Saturday against Tom Izzo and the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans, televised on ESPN.
How has Michigan been able to get back on track and upset two top-10 opponents? Outstanding efforts by Nik Stauskas, for one. The sophomore guard is averaging 18.5 points per game on the season, but in the big games, he has stepped up. He scored 23 when Michigan handed Wisconsin its second consecutive defeat, and matched his career and season-high with 26 against Iowa.
Stauskas was already the best scorer for Michigan and has taken it to an entirely different level for the past two games. He has done all of this extra scoring by taking more shots while maintaining his efficiency. Already a 50 percent shooter for the season, he has maintained that percentage, going 15-for-31 while making all but one of his free-throw attempts. He has been at his best when the team has needed him most.
Of course, a team's best player playing well can't be the only reason the team is starting to excel. There are a lot of other players who have to contribute for a team do take down some of the best teams in the country.
Against Wisconsin, Caris LeVert stepped up in a big way. He didn't miss a shot from outside, hitting all three of his three-point attempts on his way to 20 points. Big bursts of scoring aren't uncommon for LeVert, having topped 20 points four times this season, including a career-high 24 in the team's loss against Duke.
In the win against Iowa, coach John Beilein's method to victory was to ride his starters the entire way. Usually, Michigan will play with a short bench, with eight players checking into the game at most, and none playing as much as 20 minutes. With Derrick Walton Jr. suffering from the flu, Spike Albrecht made his first career start. Every player in the starting unit played more than 30 minutes. Stauskas lead the way with 37, followed by Albrecht and Glenn Robinson III with 35 each. Zak Irvin had over half of the total bench minutes with 16.
Win or lose Saturday, the Wolverines' play as of late has raised hopes for another deep run in the NCAA tournament in March.