The first 14 games have offered a little bit of everything, and the final 16 (not including the conference tournament and postseason tournament following that) are shaping up to be quite exciting for this young, Wolverine team. Players are starting to understand their role, and Mitch McGary's absence limits the Wolverines to essentially an eight man rotation.
While John Beilein only has two freshman rotation players, they both play incredibly important roles to the success of this Wolverine team. Starting with point guard Derrick Walton Jr., his ability to not turn over the ball and score around 10 points per game will be crucial. Against the top teams in the conference, such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and arguably Iowa as well, Walton will have to be especially careful with the ball, as all four of these teams have excellent back courts, and the Buckeyes' Aaron Craft is arguably the most talented "true" point guard in the country. The other freshman, Zak Irvin, must continue to do what he has done all season: make shots. Against Minnesota, Irvin was lights out, knocking down 5 of 8 from the outside, but took one ridiculous shot in what could only be described as a heat check shot. While Irvin's production is crucial, his maturity must progress so he does not take the extra 3 (which he has done on numerous occasions). This one play could be the difference between a win and a loss in a close or one possession game.
Before the start of the Big Ten season, I stated that Horford and Morgan would need to average 15 and 10 for the Wolverines to compete for a Big Ten Championship. That is a massive amount of production for two players that mostly play defense and grab a few rebounds. So far, 15 and 10 seems to be the magic number, as the two combined for 17 and 11 against Minnesota with Horford playing 30 minutes, and 15 and 16 against Northwestern with Horford playing 20 minutes and Morgan playing 18. With the number of talented wing players, I can't imagine Beilein would like to play Horford and Morgan together for long stretches. The only game this season where that could have been a possibility was against Arizona and their NBA-sized front line. Besides for that, Glenn Robinson III will likely play between 33 and 35 minutes at the 4, so Horford and Morgan will need to continue to play at this level for their combined 40 minutes.
Big Time Performers
I have loved watching this Michigan team up to this point because it's remained a mystery as to who will handle the scoring responsibility. As exciting as that was during the non-conference, role players will not be able to score 15 or 20 points against the upper echelon of the conference and the best teams in the country (Someone forgot to tell that to Spike Albrecht last year, however). Michigan needs its 6-6, sophomore, 3-headed monster to handle most of the scoring load. Nik Stauskas has become the ultimate playmaker for this team. Against Minnesota, his passing was outstanding, and his overall awareness of the floor has made him a threat in conjunction with his ability to put the ball on the floor. Stauskas will not need to score 20 every game, but that means that guys like Glenn Robinson and Caris LeVert will need to step up as well. While Michigan fans have been waiting for Robinson's full arsenal to be on display, he seems much more comfortable as a catch-and-shoot player who also makes plays at the rim. If Beilein can run a few designed lob plays for Robinson a game, as well as a few Iso plays on the wing, that should be plenty for Robinson to get his points. LeVert, however, has the talent to do a little bit of everything. He has a great stroke, is crafty in the lane, and has become an effective mid-range shooter as well. My biggest concern with LeVert is whether he has the confidence to make big time plays in hostile environments against the best teams. After a blistering start, he is only averaging 12 points a game on 44% shooting, and Michigan has not played an elite conference opponent yet. This number will have to increase a little for Michigan to be at its full potential.
Michigan has the chemistry and talent to challenge for a Big Ten Championship. They are already 2-0 and should be 4-0 going into next weekend's tilt at the Kohl Center against the Badgers. While no game for this Michigan team can be put in sharpie before the final whistle, I expect Michigan to handle Nebraska tomorrow night and Penn State at home. If they can do this, their confidence should be very high for potentially the toughest test of the season against Wisconsin.