MILWAUKEE – Nik Stauskas hit his first three-pointer 38 seconds into the game, and up went his right hand for the three-goggles signal near the midcourt stripe. Just about everyone at the Bradley Center took in some air and held their breath, wondering if it would be one of those days. And it was, an offensive detonation that thrust Michigan back into the Sweet 16 with a 79-65 win over Texas. But it was the way the Wolverines got there – and specifically how Stauskas led them there – that ginned up some basketball nightmare fuel.
Michigan is difficult to defend under normal circumstances. It had the nation's third-most efficient offense in the country during the season, and it hit another 14 three-pointers and had four players score in double figures Friday. And when Stauskas, the Big 10 player of the year, is making plays for both himself and for everyone else, there isn't a strategy invented to stop the Wolverines. He posted 17 points and a career high-tying eight assists on Friday, a walking whiplash machine for defenders who couldn't make a good decision.
"In the second half, when they started playing zone, I found it really easy to put my eyes on the basket," Stauskas said. "When I put my eyes on the basket or just pretend I'm going to raise up, a lot of people would start running at me, and that would often leave some of the other guys wide open. I'm just trying to be aggressive. If that's me getting shots at the basket or from outside, that's great. But a lot of times that just leads to guys getting open shots under the rim and from three."
But most of Stauskas' best moments against Texas were the ones he created for his teammates. In a first half, in which Michigan averaged 1.483 points per possession, he found Glenn Robinson III for a backdoor alley-oop dunk. He needle-eyed a screen-and-roll feed to Jordan Morgan for another jam. When Texas went to that zone in the second half, he slipped into the high post area to become almost impossible to defend. Close on him to prevent a short jumper? Back off to prevent a dump-down? Crumble into the fetal position and start shaking uncontrollably?
Option No. 1 was chosen, and Stauskas zipped a pass to Morgan for another dunk. The lead was up to 16 on its way to 18, and Texas had no answers. "He's a terrific player," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "What I'm most impressed with -- he had eight assists, no turnovers. That's where he's improved his game. He's more of an all-around player."
Michigan, however, did not leave the Bradley Center before reminding the patrons of some issues that threaten their Final Four candidacy. The first was the Wolverines settling into an offensive lull (just 34.6 percent shooting after halftime) while allowing a massacre on the glass, with the Texas zone disrupting Michigan's rhythm and the Longhorns collecting 15 of their 21 offensive rebounds after halftime.
"We knew that rebounding number, we probably weren't going to win that today," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We had to win the other numbers."
Michigan got back in control of the game thanks to some of its top-level performers. With 11:40 left and the lead down to 10, Michigan drew up a play for Stauskas out of a timeout and he nailed a momentum-killing three-pointer. Once the Longhorns drew within six with eight minutes left, the up-and-down Glenn Robinson III scored on a drive and then drained and three-pointer, and Michigan had breathing room again with a 63-52 lead.
Stauskas had a hand in that as well. "I wanted the ball," Robinson said. "They were kind of keying in on Nik, and I hadn't scored in a while. I felt they were sleeping."
Then, with the lead down to 10 again, Caris LeVert bolted toward a loose ball and poked it to Morgan for a dunk. With 2:41 left, LeVert drained a three-pointer to extend the lead to 11. One possession later, Morgan drew an intentional foul, the result of which was a 15-point lead for the Wolverines and a 15-point, 10-rebound effort for himself.
After the win, the white-board message that greeted the Wolverines read "BACK TO DA CRIB!" The Wolverines return to Ann Arbor to practice and prepare for next weekend. If Stauskas is the all-over threat he was Friday, the Wolverines can live on their offense. Michigan figures all of that is repeatable, and how long it lasts is up to them to decide.