When Michigan announced late last month that sophomore center Mitch McGary would have lower-back surgery, it seemed logical to write off the Wolverines. They had already lost four games at that point, and their non-conference body of work was lacking. With McGary, a preseason All-Big Ten first-team member and projected first-round NBA draft pick, likely missing the rest of the season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Wolverines couldn’t compete for the Big Ten championship. The team ranked No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press Poll had underperformed with its star big man in the lineup. How would Michigan adjust to life without him?
Pretty well, as it turns out.
Since losing to No. 1 Arizona on Dec. 14, Michigan has won six consecutive games and sits just a half-game behind No. 4 Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten. This is the first time the Wolverines have opened conference play with four consecutive wins since 2003.
Only one of Michigan’s four conference wins has come against a team that has a reasonable shot of making the NCAA tournament (Minnesota), and the Wolverines are about to enter one of the toughest three-game stretches any team will face this season. After playing at No. 3 Wisconsin on Saturday, Michigan will host No. 14 Iowa Wednesday and travel to Michigan State on Jan. 25.
Michigan’s chances of finishing the week with its perfect conference record still intact are slim. But the way the Wolverines have adjusted without McGary inspires confidence that they can win at least one.
"We see it every year. There are going to be three or four games that are just going to be really difficult,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Tuesday. “And if you can get wins in any of those games, it’s a big step -- a big step to postseason play. So we’ve got to hunker in and watch the Badgers and see what we can do."
The most promising development for the Wolverines in recent weeks is the way forwards Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan have performed with increased playing time. It’s what Beilein hoped would happen when, at the press conference held to announce McGary’s surgery, he said of the two big men, “While Jon and Jordan feel bad for Mitch, they’ve got to be excited about this, their opportunity. Are we rebuilding and restructuring everything? No. But we’re taking our offensive and defensive plans and changing them to better suit a team without Mitch McGary.”
Through four conference games, Morgan is averaging 8.5 points and four rebounds in 19 minutes per game, shooting a Big Ten-best 82.4 percent from the field and posting a 141.1 offensive rating. Horford hasn’t been as efficient as Morgan, but the 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds he’s contributed in 20 minutes per game have helped give post-McGary Michigan an effective frontcourt duo.
Derrick Walton has also stepped up his game. The former four-star recruit from Detroit has averaged 11 points while dishing out three assists in 29.8 minutes per game. Walton also converted a game-winning layup in the final 30 seconds of Michigan’s recent victory at Nebraska.
Meanwhile, sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III have formed one of the most productive offensive duos in the Big Ten. Though Robinson has been inconsistent at times (he didn't get to the free throw line once over consecutive games against Northwestern and Nebraska), Stauskas has proven a capable primary scoring option, averaging 16.2 points on 52.6 percent shooting and 38.1 percent from three while playing 88.7 percent of available minutes. Stauskas hasn’t received nearly as much recognition as he deserves, but it's hard to deny he has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best offensive players. If he turns in a couple of big games over the next week, more people will take notice.
Whether Stauskas can lead Michigan to a victory over the Badgers is another matter entirely. Despite suffering its first loss of the season on Tuesday at Indiana, Wisconsin remains one of the most balanced and efficient teams in the country. It has turned the ball over less frequently than all but one Big Ten team in conference play. It has allowed league opponents to convert just 27.1 percent of its threes and 42.3 percent of its twos. It is the only team in the country with an offense that ranks in the top-five in points scored per possession and a defense that ranks in the top 25 in points allowed per possession. It dictates tempo.
And that’s without getting into a more specific piece of information weighing against Michigan: Beilein is 1-11 against Badgers coach Bo Ryan. Beilein’s Michigan teams have struggled to break down Wisconsin’s pack-line defense. As Dylan Burkhardt of Michigan basketball blog UMHoops points out, in 12 games against Wisconsin under Beilein, Michigan has scored just 0.916 points per possession.
For context, the Wolverines have averaged 1.198 PPP in conference play this season, second only to Wisconsin among Big Ten teams. Here’s a clip of 2012-13 Michigan’s No. 1-ranked efficiency offense, led by national Player of the Year and lottery pick point guard Trey Burke, trying – and failing – to score against the Badgers in the early in the first half of their matchup in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Ryan’s team was exposed in its loss to the Hoosiers, who scored 1.17 points per possession, shot 51.6 percent from the field and repeatedly burned the Badgers on dribble penetration. Michigan has enough firepower to put a scare into Wisconsin, and if Stauskas or Robinson goes off for a big game, the Wolverines could pull the upset.
A loss won’t gloss over how well Michigan has played during McGary’s absence, as long as Michigan doesn’t get blown out. Winning in Madison is no easy thing. That goes double for Beilein.
“It’s going to be over this game, the next game and the next game,” Beilein said after Tuesday’s win over Penn State. “It’s going to be a very difficult stretch.” Michigan has fared better than expected without McGary. Its mix of efficient offense and suspect defense (which is allowing 1.032 points per possession in Big Ten play, good for sixth in the conference) has been more than enough to power it past a set of beatable conference opponents. Now Michigan needs to prove how good it really is without its frontcourt anchor. How the Wolverines perform in the next week, against three Final Four-caliber opponents, will say a lot about whether they are the mid-tier Big Ten outfit most believed they were without McGary, or something better.