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Nik Stauskas pushes post-McGary Michigan into Big Ten contention

Nik StauskasNik Stauskas was once a YouTube sideshow for the Wolverines; now he's their main offensive threat. (Leon Halip/Getty)

In a Kohl Center hallway late Saturday, before traveling back to Michigan, Nik Stauskas had about 15 minutes to reconnect with his parents, Paul and Ruta. As Nik prepared to leave, they discussed an arrival. Some of it, bizarrely, had to do with the Wisconsin spectator near one of the baskets, wearing nothing but an adult diaper while sitting on his friend’s shoulders, gyrating. Stauskas duly noted this. So he gave the fan a wink, bloodlessly sank his free throw and moved along.

Still, on this night, it wasn’t the last time he diluted the racket and continued to redefine himself with a moment of silence. In the last minute and with a lead thinned to one, Stauskas drove, stopped, dribbed through his legs and drilled a step-back three-pointer that evacuated almost all sound out of the building. Michigan went on to a 77-70 win over the then-No. 3 Badgers. It altered the trajectory of a season for a team all but dismissed not a month earlier. After it, Stauskas greeted his family. Few expected him to carry the Wolverines this way. Having done it, again, one look told his parents everything, without a word.

“You could not believe the smile on his face,” Paul Stauskas said. “He’s in the zone right now.”

Should the good cheer last through this week and percussive matchups against top 10 foes Iowa and Michigan State, Michigan (5-0 in the Big Ten) may have a league title within grasp after merely trying to get a grip on what it would become in late December after losing preseason All-American center Mitch McGary to back surgery.

It was a shot of good fortune that the Wolverines could rely subsequently on a scorer familiar with being marginalized and, thanks to failings last April, driven to get everyone’s attention. Stauskas was not the marquee name on his AAU or high school teams. He was considered a third, complementary component to a recruiting class featuring McGary and Glenn Robinson III. He now leads the Wolverines with 18 points per game, his offensive rating of 130.9 is second-best in the Big Ten and near the top 30 nationally. Like every other player, he learned McGary was lost for the year during a late December film session. Perhaps unlike his teammates, it didn’t change a thing for him.

“To be honest, with or without Mitch, throughout this whole year I’ve had that mindset, where I’m going to be the guy,” Stauskas said in a phone interview. “That’s no disrespect to Mitch or Glenn or anyone. I just kind of have that confidence now where, no matter where I am, I feel like I’m the best player on the court.”

That confidence is mostly owed to Stauskas reconstructing his approach and his body as Michigan reconstructed his roster. Scoring three points, total, in two Final Four games inspired a reedy 6-foot-6 sniper to dedicate himself in the weight room for the first time, well, ever. Adding about 15 pounds while the Wolverines subtracted ball-dominating stars Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., cut a path for Stauskas to broaden his game and become one of the most exasperating matchups in the league, if not the nation.

He’s still shooting 44 percent from three-point range, but freedom (and confidence) to attack the rim has resulted in an enhanced mid-range game and four more free throw attempts, on average, per night (2.2 last year to 6.4 this season). “We thought he’s playing at maybe the highest level of any player in the league,” Penn State assistant coach Keith Urgo said. “With his size, he’s improved his ball-handling and decision-making so much. Last year, he was truly a shooter. You knew coming into the game you had to account for him in transition and if he got his feet set in the half-court. This year, he’s making a lot of plays off the dribble. He’s coming off ball screens, making decisions. He’s really, really under control and clearly he’s extremely efficient. He’s becoming a more complete player, which is extremely dangerous at his size.”

Or, as Nebraska coach Tim Miles said this week, recalling Stauskas hitting key shots late in a Jan. 9 loss to the Wolverines: “At the end of the day, Stauskas was virtually impossible to stop.”

Everyone has noticed, though it causes Stauskas no astonishment that it took a while. On his AAU team, future Texas players Cory Joseph and Myck Kabongo consumed the glare. At St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., it was future Duke (and now Florida) player Alex Murphy and now-Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski. Stauskas, too, became a top 100 prospect. He also became a Michigan signee at the same time as McGary and Robinson III, which made for light reading when he perused stories about this bracing Wolverines recruiting haul.

“It wasn’t necessarily that people were saying bad things about me,” Stauskas said. “I kind of just wasn’t mentioned at all.”

If he wasn’t dissatisfied with a relatively specialized role of spot-up shooter as a freshman – Stauskas understood future pros like Burke were running the show – he existed on a low simmer. His father routinely posted YouTube clips essentially to shout back at those who considered Stauskas one-dimensional, non-athletic, limited in one way or another. And some of those videos indeed congealed a perception about him as an unintended consequence.

Hit 46 straight three-pointers, for example, and people might have considered Stauskas the sideshow, instead of the video itself. “I think people are starting to get to know me a little better,” Stauskas said. “Last year was more, ‘Oh, he makes YouTube videos, and he can shoot the ball really well, blah blah blah,’ that kind of stuff. Where this year, people are really starting to understand me as a basketball player. I can do a lot more than that. I’m enjoying that. That was one of my goals, to make people realize I can be a lot more than the guy who goes into my backyard and shoots.”

Affecting that change demanded a change in habits. Stauskas quit playing soccer after breaking his arm as a 5-year-old and started with basketball at 7 when his uncle invited him to play in a church league. But not once between then and his son’s arrival at Michigan, Paul Stauskas said, did Nik weight train with any consistency. Paul would drag his son to the gym. After three or four days, Nik would complain that he couldn’t shoot because his arms hurt.

A different pain set in after the Final Four vanishing act. Stauskas estimated he received maybe 100 text messages with encouragement. People said they were proud. He didn’t want to hear it. “I mean, I was kind of embarrassed the way I played,” Stauskas said.

He didn’t answer many of those missives, but he did have a response in mind. When most Wolverines cleared out for spring break, he and teammate Caris LeVert remained on campus. They began a strict regiment with strength and conditioning coach John Sanderson, lifting five times a week for about an hour and a half each day, sometimes getting started at 7 a.m.

“Those ones hurt the most,” Stauskas said. “It sucked at the time, because obviously it was painful and it was tiring. But it helped me a lot.”

It activated parts of his game that for many reasons laid dormant in his freshman season. Michigan coach John Beilein insisted Monday that Stauskas’ dribble-drive game was “very good” as a freshman, just obscured by that of Burke and Hardaway. But now Stauskas has the frame to get “two feet in the paint,” as Beilein put it, with greater regularity and effectiveness.

And that now makes Stauskas aggravating to deal with on every square inch of the floor. “It’s hard to get him off balance,” Nebraska’s Miles said. “Whether he’s driving to the hoop or absorbing any contact, he’s so strong, his legs are so good, that he stays in balance. So he’s able to get the shot off or get fouled. He’s really shown that strength.”

Once the desire to renovate his mentality and his body set in, everything came fast -- including, as it happens, recalibrated plans. Stauskas and his family wondered what people were missing about his capabilities for so long. Now, the hunger to demonstrate those capabilities this season might inspire a much shorter wait on future opinions elicited from, say, NBA executives.

“He sees the brass ring, like three inches away from his nose,” Paul Stauskas said. “He knows all he has to do is keep his nose to the grindstone for another couple of months, and there’s a really good possibility he might be able to go pro. He’s working really hard to achieve that.”

In the nearer term, two more games against two more top 10 teams will stress the caulked-over fissures in Michigan’s lineup left when McGary departed it. But the team’s very first reaction to that new reality might inform how it will handle this one.

As a film session began after Christmas, Beilein dropped the news that McGary would not be available, for certain. Quiet descended upon the room. But no one broke down. No one, as Stauskas put it, started crying. There was a practice to get to.

Michigan had lost the player most expected to kindle a deep postseason run. Meanwhile, the player who long before resolved to take care of that himself walked on to the floor to ensure everyone kept paying attention.

“We kind of just had to figure out a way to make things work,” Stauskas said. “Obviously losing (McGary) was tough. But I had that mindset all along.”
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