Last season, Michigan started off 16-0, in one of the hottest starts in recent memory. But this season, they have not started out as scorchingly. Michigan stands at 6-3 this season, and awaits their toughest test of the season: the #1 Arizona Wildcats. As the team prepares for Friday's tough matchup, I imagine they are also preparing their Christmas lists. Let's speculate as to what some of the key Wolverines would like to see under the tree come Christmas time to help save their season and cement themselves in the top 25.
McGary's main request from Santa this season will be to get back into a groove now that he has returned from injury. After speculation that he might not have played until the start of Big Ten play, McGary has played limited minutes in 7 of Michigan's 9 games. Because he was so ahead of schedule, there were times early in the season where he seemed out of rhythm. In Michigan's overtime victory against Florida State earlier this year, he logged 33 grueling minutes, putting up 14 points and 12 rebounds. However, coach John Beilein said this after the FSU victory:
He’s so far -- his timing and all those things are so far off right now, but he gives us some energy, he gives us some rebounding ability that few people in the country have," Michigan coach John Beilein said.
Since the Florida State game, McGary hasn't surpassed 30 minutes of playing time, but he's been efficient in his slightly limited role. The game against Duke was his best so far, snagging 15 points and 14 rebounds in what will be one of his many double-doubles this season. But McGary has a lot of chemistry to catch up on with his guards. Since he sat out most of the preseason with his injury, he has yet to extensively practice with point guard Derrick Walton and learn each other's cadences and tendencies. All McGary needs is time to become the animal we saw at the end of last year. Once he gets into a groove, he'll be tough to stop on the low block.
All Nik Stauskas wants for Christmas is to forget that the Duke loss ever happened. That game couldn't have gone worse for the sophomore sharpshooter. He only attempted two field goals the entire night and missed them both. This was caused by a swaddling defensive effort from the Blue Devils, specifically from Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones. The two Duke guards didn't let him breathe the entire night. They didn't switch on ball screens, where Stauskas usually thrives. They just shadowed him for the whole game, and effectively neutralized him as an offensive threat.
Luckily, Michigan doesn't face coaches as shrewd as Coach K each night. But you bet your bottom dollar that Arizona watched that game tape. They know that Stauskas is lethal off screens, and know they have to face-guard him to stop him. The job of stopping Stauskas will most likely fall to freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who comes off the bench. Hollis-Jefferson stands at 6'7", which is a much better matchup for Arizona than their other starting guards (6'1" and 6'3"). However, you know Stauskas has practiced all week with a man draped all over him. If he can prove that he can score against top competition, that should allay a lot of fears from Wolverine fans.
Robinson hopes to find a remedied jump shot in his stocking this year. Although it's still early, Robinson's shooting numbers look grim compared to last year. He is shooting 44% from the field (57% last year) and 28% from behind the arc (32% last year). A lot of those numbers can be credited to the presence of Trey Burke. Last year, Burke could drive and force the defense to collapse to the lane, leaving Robinson open for easier jumpers. Because Michigan lacks that attacking first option this year, Robinson has been forced to create his own shot more. That hasn't worked well, mostly because that's not Robinson's skill set. He succeeds when he's in open space and in transition.
His shooting dilemma will be solved as the season grows longer. Defenses pay much closer attention to him now that Trey Burke is gone. But Robinson's skills on defense and with rebounding will only help his offensive struggles. As I stated before, Robinson thrives when he attacks the basket in open space. There are few better finishing in transition than Robinson in the country. If he forces steals and grabs rebounds, that will open up the fast break and allow him to get back that scoring confidence.
It's all about turning turnovers into assists for this freshman point guard. He's averaging 3.0 assists thus far, but is committing 2.4 turnovers per game. The Michigan offense thrives when their point guard is a primary scorer. Obviously, Trey Burke was just that, and he became one of the best players in the country last year. Their point guard is never going to blow you away with their passing - that's not a Beilein offense. However, they do need to control the ball, and hit the open man when they run out of options in the lane. Walton hasn't proved yet that he can find open shooters when he drives. Sometimes, it seems like he tries to force the issue, which leads to a turnover. But he's got great options on the wings that will knock down open looks all day. If Walton can slowly become smarter in the half-court, and turn some of those dangerous passes into easy looks for Stauskas and Caris LeVert, it'll be a Christmas miracle for the Wolverines.
He's been a jack-of-all-trades so far this year, and he'll be asking Santa to help him maintain his versatility in the Michigan offense. LeVert has averaged 32.5 minutes per game so far, which is a major step up from his meager 10.8 minutes per game last season. He's looked composed against even the toughest of competition, especially considering his breakout game against Duke. He scored 24 points that game, hitting shot after shot with a neutralized Stauskas and found his way to the foul line with ease. He even stepped in as point guard during that game when Walton seemed lost. Because Michigan has yet to find an offensive identity, LeVert has plenty of chances to find his way onto the stat sheet. He will need to adapt as the offense grows together as a unit.
There you have it. Let's hope that these Wolverines are all on the nice list this year, and get everything they wished for. But hopefully they're spending more time this week studying Arizona game tape than making their Christmas list. But a in against the #1 team in the country would be the best gift of all for Michigan fans.