The moment in which Michigan was stamped as a potential Final Four team came last spring when point guard Trey Burke decided to return to Ann Arbor for his sophomore season rather than entering the NBA Draft.
Suddenly, much of the disappointment of being bounced in their first game of the NCAA Tournament by Ohio University following a 22-point drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament was erased for the Wolverines. After winning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 1986, the return of Burke meant that Michigan had legitimate aspirations of battling national title favorite Indiana for the conference title and more.
Michigan has lived up to its billing in the early part of the season, racing out to a 6-0 start and a No. 3 ranking in both The Associated Press media and USA TODAY/ESPN coaches polls. The Wolverines posted their most impressive win Tuesday night when they beat a very good North Carolina State team--ranked 18th in both polls--79-72 in Ann Arbor after capturing the Preseason NIT title with wins over Pittsburgh and Kansas State last week at Madison Square Garden.
"The NIT is a great, great preseason tournament and then to win a championship is a thrill," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "I think the way we frame it up this year was that it was one opportunity. When you go to the University of Michigan, you work at Michigan, you talk about championships a lot and being champions. Those who stay will be champions. So whenever we have a chance to do something like that, we embrace it and go for it like there were no other games in the season. The season is a marathon, though. This is maybe the first 400 yards or something of that marathon. We've ran it well early but there is a long way to go."
Beilein, of course, is correct as we're still in the final day of November. However, it is easy to see Michigan being unbeaten when it begins Big Ten play with a visit on Jan. 3 to Northwestern. The Wolverines' two most difficult games between now and then are at home against Arkansas and versus West Virginia on a neutral court.
It is also easy to anticipate Michigan presenting a major challenge to Indiana--though Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State also figure to be in the mix--in the Big Ten, primarily because the Wolverines are proving to be much more than just Grant doing an outstanding job running the point. He is averaging 16.7 points/2.8 rebounds/7.5 assists and 33.0 minutes while ranking 27th nationally with a 38.8 assist rate, according to kenpom.com
Junior shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has earned equal billing to Burke during the early part of the season as he has averages 17.8/6.2/1.7/33.0. His .637 effective field-goal percentage is 78th in the country. Hardaway was very good against Kansas State in the NIT final as he had 23 points and seven rebounds in32 minutes of a 71-57 victory to earn tournament MVP honors. His only superior performance so far this season came in a season-opening rout of Division II Slippery Rock in the opener as he had 25 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber knows Hardaway well, having coached against him in the Big Ten at Illinois before being fired at the end of last season. Weber was impressed by how much Hardaway has improved.
"He's a different player," Weber said. "He's putting it on the floor. Obviously, he's gotten in the gym and worked on his game. It makes it tough, because you've got to defend two very good guards."
Hardaway's average lines were 13.9/3.8/1.7/30.7 as a freshman in 2010-11 and 14.6/3.8/2.1/34.2 last season. The biggest difference was that his three-point percentage dropped from .367 as a freshman to .283 as a sophomore. In turn, his effective field-goal percentage (.520 to .484) and True Shooting Percentage (.557 to .525) also fell. Hardaway now has his three-point percentage back its freshman level.
"Freshman year he was obviously very good," Weber said. "I don't know what happened after that. He started with USA Basketball. He just didn't make any shots. I'm on the (selection) committee and that was going to be our go-to shooter. I don't know if the pressure or what happened last year but he had struggled."
Hardaway and Burke attended a number of skills camps conducted by NBA players last summer, including ones by Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Hardaway not only regained his shot but has become an all-around presence on the court.
"With Tim playing the way he is, it opens everything up for us because the defense is no longer worried about the pick-and-roll actions," Burke said. "They're no longer worried about shots. They have to worry about Tim getting to the basket, him coming off the screens. That opens up other guys to get some open shots. The biggest difference this year would be his confidence. I think it's a matter of maturity. We continue to encourage Tim and I think he is starting to learn he can be very special."
Burke (26.6 percent) and Hardaway (26.0 percent) have combined to take over half of Michigan's shots so far. However, they have still left room for a pair of freshmen to score in double figures. Guard Nik Stauskas is averaging 13.0/3.2/0.6/26.3 and forward Glenn Robinson III--like Hardaway, the son of a former NBA star--has an average line of 12.2/7.5/1.3/32.3.
Stauskas has been as good as any shooter in the nation. He ranks first in True Shooting Percentage (83.0) and fifth in effective field-goal percentage (78.4) while knocking down 59.5 percent of his shots from the floor, 58.3 percent from 3-point range and 95.2 from the free throw line.
Stauskas' 161.0 Offensive Rating is fourth in the country and Robinson is 93rd with a 130.2 mark. However, Stauskas defers much of the credit to Burke and being part of a well-balanced offense.
"Trey is an NBA-caliber point guard," Stauskas said. "I know that when he gets into the lane and people close in on him, he's going to find me. We have a lot of guys that can score the ball in a lot of different ways on this team. Whether it's down in the post or shooting threes or getting to the basket on a dribble drive, we have a lot of people who can do everything. If one guy is being shut off, we have a lot of guys that will step up and get the job done."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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