Michigan is back in the national title conversation

Leon Halip

After three straight wins against top 10 teams, the Wolverines sit alone atop the Big Ten and are poised to make a second run at a national title game.

With a rare road win in East Lansing, Michigan burst back onto the scene with three straight wins against top 10 opponents. With wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and now Michigan State, the Wolverines are in first place in the Big Ten and shooting up the national rankings.

After losing pre-season All-American Mitch McGary to season-ending back surgery, the Wolverines have had to redefine themselves on the offensive side of the floor. John Beilein has his team playing with four guys on the perimeter, stretching teams out to provide open shots for Nik Stauskas and driving lanes for Michigan's other perimeter players.

Stauskas has been the biggest benefactor, averaging nearly 23 points per game in the Wolverines' last three. In the Michigan State game, he finished 5-of-6 from the three-point line. With more performances like that, the Canadian-born shooter could be a first-time All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year.

Joining Stauskas in the backcourt resurgence is Caris LeVert, who came up big in both the Wisconsin and Michigan State games. The sophomore netted 20 and 17 points in those respective games, and he gives the Wolverines the second scoring option that everyone thought Glenn Robinson III would be. If LeVert can continue to get to the basket, he and Stauskas will provide a deadly combination in Michigan's half-court sets.

A bit late to the game is fellow guard Derrick Walton Jr., who scored a career-high 19 against the Spartans on Saturday. The freshman got into the lane and drew fouls, sinking 9-of-10 free throw attempts on the day. Pretty good for a guy who combined to score two points in 34 minutes the previous two games.

The biggest factor in the streak against top opponents has been three-point shooting, which is a testament to the spacing in the new-look offense. In the three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, the Wolverines both outscored and out-shot their opponents from behind the arc. Michigan averaged 41 percent from deep and nearly nine threes per game during that stretch, while its opponents -- excellent outside-shooting teams -- averaged 36 percent and just more than five threes per game. Open looks for Michigan are being coupled with disciplined perimeter defense, which is the recipe for success in this decade of college basketball.

Many tests still lie ahead for Michigan. The Wolverines will host a potentially healthier Michigan State team later in the season, along with re-matches against Iowa and Wisconsin. And don't forget a road game at Ohio State, which would love to start a conference winning streak after some disappointments of its own. The Big Ten is still up for grabs, but at 7-0 Michigan is in the drivers' seat for a regular-season conference title and another run to the Final Four.

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