Michigan knew coming into the season that its success could hinge on the play of Caris LeVert, and so far the junior guard has delivered.
LeVert looks to help lead the way again Tuesday night when the No. 17 Wolverines face another tough test against Syracuse in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
LeVert is averaging 17.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.0 steals, all of which rank as career highs and among the best in the Big Ten.
He scored a season-high 24 points in Saturday's 91-62 win over Nicholls State, picking up some of the slack left by the absence of backcourt mate Derrick Walton Jr., who is averaging 13.8 points but sat out with a toe injury.
"Here's what's really special about him, and I've coached a lot of fine young men; I'm talking about one of the best attitudes I've ever coached," coach John Beilein said about LeVert. "From top to bottom: about going to class, about being on time, about work habits, about love for the game, and we recruit good kids.
"He's up there with the ones you love coaching every single day because you seem to be on the same page with him ... You don't find that very often."
LeVert's performance helped Michigan (5-1) bounce back after a 60-55 loss to then-No. 12 Villanova last Tuesday in the championship game of the Legends Classic. He scored a game-high 16 points and had six rebounds against the Wildcats.
While LeVert shot 7 of 12 versus Villanova, Walton, who remains questionable, was 4 for 11 and failed to get to the free throw line after averaging seven attempts coming in. Zak Irvin, who narrowly leads the team with 17.7 points per game, also struggled through a 4-for-13 night and was 1 of 7 from 3-point range.
Excluding the Villanova game, Irvin is shooting 51.4 percent from long range. He and LeVert were a combined 9 for 14 from 3 against the Colonels.
"We consider (Irvin) one of the premier shooters in college basketball," Beilein said. "He's growing in his game all the time, and he's got so much more growth to do."
Syracuse (5-1) has done well lately in stifling the opposition's perimeter presence, holding Loyola of Maryland to 19.2 percent from long range Tuesday and Holy Cross to 26.8 percent in a 72-48 victory Friday.
However, the same defensive effort failed to materialize in a loss to California in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 20. The Golden Bears shot 42.1 percent from beyond the arc and trounced the then-No. 23 Orange 73-59.
Should Walton remain out, Syracuse can focus on just three Wolverines shooting over 42 percent from beyond the arc - LeVert, Irvin and Spike Albrecht (42.9).
There remains plenty of concern for Syracuse with its own 3-point shooting, which is sitting at 19.8 percent - tied for the second worst in Division I.
"We learned a lot in New York," Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. "We got our butts kicked and we learned something. We have a great game coming up next week. These games will help us get better. We have to keep playing good defense and try to get a little better on offense as we go along."
The last meeting between these programs resulted in a 61-56 victory for Michigan in the 2013 Final Four. The Wolverines, who went on to lose to Louisville in the NCAA title game that year, have split their previous four games against the Orange.