In Michigan’s last three games, Nik Stauskas has attempted 15 shots. That is not enough shots. Partly this is the consequence of his compiling Big Ten Player of the Year numbers in the eight previous games -- opponents began focusing on bringing those numbers down. Partly it’s a function of other players failing to compensate; if they did, opposing defenses would untangle some.
But 15 shots in 104 minutes played are not enough shots, and the once-scorching Wolverines losing two of those three games underscored that. And now comes the hard part. A visit to Ohio State on Tuesday night will reveal how quickly Michigan can unearth counters – it basically had a day and a half to sort things out – and also how reliable and universal a game plan teams have for limiting Stauskas.
The shot percentages for the Wolverines’ sophomore star in his last three games are his lowest three totals in Big Ten play thus far: 15.2 percent against Indiana, 6.7 percent against Nebraska, 13.2 percent against Iowa. It had not been lower than 20 percent since the Big Ten opener. A dominant offensive effort against the Cornhuskers was just not necessary in a 29-point victory, but the losses suggested Michigan wasn’t prepared to withstand teams removing Stauskas from the equation.
It has been a total team effort to contain the Wolverines’ sophomore star in those defeats by Indiana and Iowa – “We were pretty much, you know, locked into collectively going after Stauskas,” Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery said after an 85-67 win on Saturday – and Ohio State has perhaps the best collection of pieces to exacerbate those woes. Iowa dispatched 6-foot-6 Roy Devyn Marble as the primary defender on Stauskas, who took just six shots and committed four turnovers in the loss last weekend. The Buckeyes have bouncy 6-foot-7 forward Sam Thompson if they want to go that route.
If irritation or a changeup is in order, it might not be absurd to bird-dog Stauskas with Aaron Craft, who would surrender four inches to Stauskas but who would get under Michigan’s leading scorer and make it difficult for him to shoot. It’s a similar dynamic with the Buckeyes’ Lenzelle Smith Jr. or Shannon Scott. Both Indiana and Iowa freely switched defenders on Stauskas to limit his space, and Ohio State has no shortage of interchangeable wing or backcourt players who can provide their own annoyances.
“When you put up the numbers Nick put up this year, you have to be ready for taking the other team’s best shot,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “And you have to emotionally be really strong to do that, especially in the road where you are the villain. Staying calm through all that is a challenge for everybody. It was for Trey (Burke), it will be for Nik, that’s part of the process.”
Stauskas posted eight assists in the Nebraska game but just one, total, in the losses to Indiana and Iowa, against six turnovers. He can help himself by being careful with the ball, for one. And it might be too jarring a tweak to make in a relatively short window, but sending Stauskas to the elbow or even the post against a smaller defender might invert the defense just enough to make the discomfort mutual. In that setup, a gifted scorer like Stauskas might have enough of an early advantage to find a rhythm before the defense can adjust.
But Michigan can do plenty to help, too. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford combined for four field goals in the two recent losses, so the Wolverines had no post threat to draw the defense back. Likewise, Beilein lamented his team’s defensive boardwork at Iowa; the Hawkeyes had 15 offensive rebounds on 32 missed shots, hampering Michigan’s ability to get out in transition for clear looks. Instead, it was swampy going in the half-court, the defense set for Stauskas and everyone else.
“We get X’d and O’d to death,” Beilein said. “You have to get easy points.”
To get points, Stauskas needs to get shots. On Saturday, he indicated to MLive.com there is one person in charge of ensuring that happens.
“I blame myself for that,” Stauskas said. “I think I haven’t done my part offensively ... I think it falls on me right now.” In some ways, yes. But teammates have to help, and Michigan has to hope it can counteract an effective plan executed by defenses lately. In that, Stauskas can control very little. All he can do is look for his shot and hope that it’s there.