By Mark Snyder
Detroit Free Press Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — All it took was conference play to incite the Wolverines.
After a sluggish nonconference season, Michigan is ready to take on all challengers, waving like a boxer asking for more.
That’s the energy eight straight wins, with a perfect conference record, will give a team.
The Wolverines went on the road and took out No.3 Wisconsin in a historic performance and returned home, down a starter (Derrick Walton Jr. out with flu-like symptoms), and still knocked out the nation’s No.10 team. No. 21-ranked U-M beat No. 10 Iowa, 75-67, at the Crisler Center, showing confidence and composure.
It helps to have one of the nation’s hottest players in sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, who calmly matched his career high with 26 points, but this is about that swagger the Wolverines are all rolling with now, the feeling they can take out anyone.
“Guys are really confident,” Stauskas said. “We’ve got a lot of guys shooting the ball really well and making big shots.”
While the wealth spread among the Wolverines (14-4, 6-0 Big Ten), they’re following his lead.
From the hand gestures after dropping three-pointers to the and-one sign he made after getting fouled on a made drive, Stauskas is inciting this as he seems to improve every night, showing off even more versatility.
“If we’re a little sluggish, I might try to pump us up a little bit and get the crowd into it,” he said. “We feed off that kind of stuff.”
That worked at home but now a bigger challenge awaits, more than the past eight games.
They’ll get that chance on Saturday in East Lansing in the showdown between the Big Ten’s two undefeated teams — a titanic battle even this early because everyone in the conference besides Michigan and Michigan State has two losses.
But that story will get its spotlight, with the national television audience and ESPN’s “College GameDay” waiting.
Wednesday was about the Wolverines’ ability to control a game against another elite team.
On Tuesday, U-M coach John Beilein refused to reveal where he wanted the pace to be for the matchup.
Despite Iowa’s early aggression with easy lay-ups from Melsahn Basabe, Michigan got the game just where it wanted, keeping the high-scoring Hawkeyes from pushing the pace.
“I wanted it in the 70s,” Beilein said of Iowa, which averaged nearly 87 points per game. “I didn’t know if it would get in the 70s. The 80s with them could be tough, just because of their numbers… A guy told me way back when I first started coaching… if you hold them under 70, you usually win. And it works pretty well.”
That the Hawkeyes (15-4, 4-2) had it within a possession late was remarkable, considering Aaron White was their only player who scored in a 9-minute second half stretch.
The Wolverines earlier made their big run, stretching the lead to 11, midway through the second half with a burst, then reminding later they can finish.
“That’s just having a number of games under out belt and being confident if they make a run, it’s not the end of the world, we can make a run back at them,” Stauskas said.
DETROIT FREE PRESS NOTES
As Nik Stauskas’ game takes off so does his profile.
With another starring night in Wednesday’s 75-67 win over No. 10 Iowa at Crisler Center, as Stauskas tied his career high with 26 points and seemed to be able to pass and score whenever he wanted, the focus intensified on him.
Inevitably that leads to his future possibilities and that reached a spotlight this week when his father, Paul, told SI.com “there’s a really good possibility” that Stauskas might be able leave for the NBA after this season.
Nik Stauskas tried to deflect that after Wednesday’s game.
“I apologize for my father’s comments, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said. “I haven’t really thought anything about that yet and we’ll just address that after the season.”
MORGAN RISING: A month ago, Jordan Morgan’s role appeared to be minimal with this Michigan team.
Once star center Mitch McGary returned a few games into the season and with Jon Horford playing well, it didn’t look like Morgan would get many minutes and hadn’t shown much in games to deserve them.
Yet since McGary’s indefinite leave began in late December after back surgery, Morgan has played very well, with two eight-rebound games, a 15-point scoring game at Nebraska and filling the energy role missing without McGary.
On Wednesday, it was a 12-point, seven-rebound performance and he was rewarded with a season-high 32 minutes.
“This is the old Jordan that we all saw,” U-M coach John Beilein said. “Not only that but he’s sitting in our office during the day, he’s around our guys, he’s messaging our guys. The leadership right now, I didn’t foresee this coming. You’ve got Mitch and you’ve got Jon and all of the sudden he got his shot. He’s been so team-oriented all year long even when he was playing little minutes. All of the sudden, it’s right here in front of him. A great lesson for everybody, you never know how it’s going to turn out.”
WHO’S NEXT?: After beating Iowa, the focus quickly turned to Saturday’s showdown at No. 3 Michigan State.
Stauskas vividly remembers last season’s 75-52 loss in East Lansing.
“They punked us and they came out from the very start and they were a lot more aggressive than we were, they were getting every loose ball, every rebound and they were throwing the ball in the post and we couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “I think toughness is going to be key for us come this Saturday.”
In a season of thrills reaching the NCAA title game, that was the biggest whipping the Wolverines took and probably the lone game where they never had a chance.
“The physical play, they really did a great job on us last year of getting into our bodies just pounding the backboard on us,” Beilein said. “Trey (Burke) got in foul trouble and they’re a terrific team. Hopefully we’ll perform better because last year was not pretty.”
NOTEBOOK: McGary appeared at a game for the first time since his back surgery on Jan. 7. He wore a suit and sat on the bench and cheered with his teammates, appearing to move enough.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball