ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan freshman Nik Stauskas has spent his whole life honing his 3-point shot.
He’s been so devoted to the craft that he missed out on growing up Canadian. Despite living outside Toronto, he doesn’t like hockey — “I just never got into it” — and has no idea who Alanis Morissette might be.
As long as he’s shooting like he did Tuesday night, no one is going to care, even if he turns out to hate Tim Horton’s.
Stauskas hit four 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 20 points as No. 3 Michigan beat No. 18 North Carolina State 79-72 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Crisler Center.
“I’m always confident in my shot, no matter where I am, and no matter who is guarding me,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life working on it in the backyard. Shooting is what I do.”
At this point, Stauskas is still coming off the bench for the Wolverines, but he’s getting starter’s minutes. He played 33 minutes against the Wolfpack while leading the team in scoring.
“It doesn’t bother me at all to play this role,” he said. “I’m coming into the game with a green light to shoot. What could be better than that?”
With a little better luck, Stauskas could have gone 7-for-7 from behind the arc, but it was a layup that impressed North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried. With his defender expecting another long jumper, Stauskas beat him with a behind-the-back dribble and hit a reverse layup in traffic.
“That kid made a huge difference tonight,” Gottfried said. “Obviously, he can shoot the ball, but when he gets to the hole like that, it means you can’t just play him for the three. That makes it tougher, especially when you’ve also got to worry about Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.”
Stauskas’ only other two-point basket came when he faked a 3-pointer, drove past the fooled defender and hit a wide-open baseline jump shot.
“I think that when I drive to the basket or use a pump fake, it puts some doubt in the opposing players,” he said. “They can’t just know I’m going to shoot a three, and that gives me some extra space.”
It’s working, as he’s hitting 58.3 percent from 3-point range in the first six games of the season.
“He’s our automatic sniper out there,” said Hardaway. “Shooting is his life, and he just knocks everything down.”
Stauskas did have some help, especially from Burke. With North Carolina State expecting him to shoot early, he didn’t score in the first half, but put up nine assists. In the second half, with the Wolfpack defense focused on Stauskas and Hardaway (16 points), Burke scored 18 points in 19 minutes.
“That’s the kind of game that a great point guard is going to play,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “In the first half, he was finding the open man on almost every possession, and in the second half, when they had Timmy and Nik locked down, he started to score the ball.”
Glenn Robinson III added 11 points for the Wolverines, who didn’t do anything to tarnish their lofty ranking.
“They are ranked up there for a reason,” Gottfried said. “That’s a top-5 basketball team, and I am proud of our kids for making it a close game. Coming in here and making a run at them is something you can build on.”
And with four freshmen playing key roles — Stauskas, Robinson, Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht combined for 39 points and 15 rebounds — things are only likely to get better for the Wolverines.
“This team is fun to coach, because they have a lot of options,” Beilein said. “Good teams usually do, but we are still wearing our labcoats with this one, because players like Nik and Mitch are completely different than they were a month ago. They are still growing like crazy as they learn.”
That means more and more shooting practice for Stauskas, who has managed to pick up one crucial bit of Canadian culture.
“I like Justin Bieber — he seems like a great guy,” he said. “I loved his movie.”