Michigan’s basketball team defies expectations

On Tuesday night, when Michigan finished blowing Illinois out of its own gym, the reshuffled roster clinched the outright Big Ten championship.

Bradley Leeb/Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone thought this was going to a rebuilding season for Michigan basketball.

Yes, the Wolverines were coming off a trip to the national-championship game, but they had lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and preseason first-team All-American Mitch McGary to a back injury.

McGary, the surprise star of the tournament run, played some of Michigan’s non-conference games, but had to shut his season down before Big Ten play started.

Instead of folding, however, coach John Beilein simply asked more of the players who supported last season’s run, along with others who were still in high school a year ago.

It shouldn’t have worked. In most cases, you can’t lose your three best starters and go on without missing a beat.

But on Tuesday night, when Michigan finished blowing Illinois out of its own gym, the reshuffled roster clinched the outright Big Ten championship.

Burke and Hardaway never did that. The Fab Five didn’t, either. Not even the 1989 national champs were able to win the title outright.

I’m not surprised at all by what they’ve done.

Tim Hardaway Jr. on his former team

It had been 28 years since a team led by Roy Tarpley, Gary Grant and a freshman named Glen Rice finished alone in first place.

How did it happen?

It turns out that Michigan had a much better talent base than anyone realized a year ago. The only people who knew were the ones in the gym.

"I’m not surprised at all by what they’ve done," Hardaway said while visiting the Palace with the Knicks. "We all practiced with Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert last season, and we saw how good they were.

FOUL BALL

"Everything that those two have done this year? They could have done it last year, except our offense was designed to go through Trey and me. This year, they got their chance and they stepped up."

Last year, Stauskas was a 3-point specialist, and LeVert wasn’t even supposed to be on the team. Beilein had planned to red-shirt him, but when a couple bench players struggled early, LeVert found himself on the roster and in the rotation.

Now, without having to defer to Burke, Hardaway and McGary, the sophomores have blossomed.

Stauskas is suddenly more than a shooter. He passes and is more than happy to drive and dunk on defenders who play him too tightly on the perimeter. He’s gone from being the fourth or fifth option on offense to the first. He’s also such a good all-around player, he can help the team on the rare nights that his shot isn’t falling.

His biggest fan might be Burke, who started a Twitter campaign this week to get the Canadian selected as Big Ten Player of the Year.

The ultimate guide to WrestleMania

"This isn’t something that Nik just learned to do," Beilein said. "We’d have one-on-one drills during practice last season, and he could get to the rim against anyone on our team.

"In the game, though, we needed him on the wing to open up the lane for the other guys. This year, he’s gotten to do what he can do, and you’ve seen the results."

Stauskas leads Michigan in scoring (17.1 points per game) and is shooting 44.4 percent on 3-pointers. LeVert is right behind him in both categories at 13.4 and 40.2. They are also 1-2 in assists and steals.

The whole package has them being talked about as NBA players in the same way Burke and Hardaway were after their first seasons as go-to players. But Stauskas and LeVert haven’t done it alone.

Freshman Derrick Walton Jr. has stepped into Burke’s point-guard role and given Michigan a ball-handler who can pass and hit nearly 40 percent on 3-pointers. And fellow newcomer Zak Irvin has provided scoring off the bench.

Even though Glenn Robinson III hasn’t taken the big step forward that most observers expected this season, he’s scoring 13 points a game and provides an emotional boost with his highlight-reel dunks.

Quietly, though, the most important player of them all might be Jordan Morgan, who figured his career was all but over when McGary became a national sensation last spring. Then, when McGary’s back went out, Beilein needed him big time.

Morgan, who’s working on a master’s degree after finishing a bachelor’s in engineering, has provided senior leadership to a young team and combined with junior Jon Horford to provide 11.2 points and 9.9 rebounds a game — a nightly double-double that’s filled in nicely for a team that lost its center on the eve of Big Ten play.

"I was always going to be ready to do whatever Coach Beilein and my teammates needed," Morgan said. "No one believed in us, but we always knew we were good.

"We’re the only ones who see how much of a team this is, and how much we love to work. That’s how we did this."

Will the Wolverines be able to match last year’s postseason run? It doesn’t seem likely. Even Burke, Hardaway and McGary needed some breaks to get to the Final Four.

But no one thought they had a chance to hang a conference championship banner at the Crisler Center, either.

This Michigan team defies expectations.