Michigan winning despite losses

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Last season, Michigan's basketball team belonged to Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.

At best, the players around them were complementary pieces. The common criticism coming into this season was that the Wolverines had a bunch of niche players returning, but niche players don't make a team, and certainly not one that could contend for a Big Ten title.

"We heard it and all throughout the summer that's what motivated us all to work hard," sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said. "We knew we were losing that talent and that people thought we couldn't do it. We're just trying to work as hard as we can and get better every day."

So the Wolverines spent the summer working on turning niche parts into a more complete and cohesive unit.

Stauskas spent the summer in Ann Arbor with sophomore guard Caris LeVert. He added 16 pounds while LeVert added 27. LeVert improved his ballhandling skills, knowing he might have to take minutes at the point while Stauskas became more of a threat driving to the basket. Glenn Robinson III worked on his midrange jumper and becoming a better defender.

As the season began, John Beilein's group somehow looked more well-rounded than last season's unit. He, like his team, had spent the summer preparing -- not how to replace two first-round NBA draft picks, including a Wooden Award winner, but in determining what kind of opportunities there were for the names on his roster.

"The minutes were there to be had," said Beilein, whose team is on an eight-game winning streak and is looking for its third top-10 win on Saturday against No. 3 Michigan State. "It has been great for them. It's what we do as coaches -- don't worry about what you don't have, worry about what you have."

But what, exactly, Michigan had was a big question mark.

It was a question that took on even greater import when Michigan announced center Mitch McGary needed back surgery and would miss the rest of the season. The Wolverines were 7-4 at the time and needed senior Jordan Morgan and junior Jon Horford to at least assume McGary's minutes, if not his production. Suddenly, the big picture Beilein spoke of seemed even more blurry.

Robinson III certainly had athleticism, but his midrange game and ballhandling left something to be desired. Stauskas could shoot the ball, but if defenders took that away, his game was limited. LeVert had potential but he seemed too thin to compete in Division I, let alone the Big Ten. Could any of those players truly pose the threat that Hardaway Jr. did at his best? Could even a combination of two of them do that?

And would it be Spike Albrecht or freshman point guard Derrick Walton who'd provide the assists and control of the game that Burke did? Was there any way to truly have as efficient a team after losing a Wooden Award-winning point guard?

"We like the talent on this team," Beilein said. "We said, 'Isn't this great? They're going to have opportunities to get more shots, to do more things, to just be a bigger part of both our offense and our defense.'"

The early returns have been positive. Michigan is averaging fewer turnovers per game this season (9.2) than at the same time last season (9.7) and the Wolverines are close to last season's assist per game mark (15.9 last season; 15.6 this season). 

With a road win over Wisconsin last weekend and a home win over Iowa on Wednesday, it does seem as though each player is assuming more responsibility.

It's still hard to say conclusively that the Wolverines have been able to completely replace the production left behind by Burke, Hardaway Jr. and McGary, as they're only six games in to the Big Ten season.

But they've certainly fared better than other teams in the season following a run to the national championship game.

Statistically, the Wolverines lost more in terms of production than five teams that appeared in the title game over the past five seasons -- MSU (2009), Duke (2010), Butler (2010), Connecticut (2011) and Kansas (2012). 

And even though they've needed to replace more, they've actually bounced back better.

Those five teams, in the seasons following their title game appearance, averaged just three top-25 wins all season, including just six total top-10 wins.

Only two teams that have played in the national title game have had to replace more, statistically, than Michigan during that same period: Kentucky (2012 champion) and North Carolina (2009 champion).

John Calipari's group lost all five starters following that title, and with those departures, the Wildcats also lost more than 90 percent of their minutes played, rebounds, assists, steals and points.

Roy Williams' team didn't lose as much following the 2009 title run, but the Tar Heels needed to replace 65 percent of their minutes as well as 75 percent of their points scored.

Unsurprisingly, neither team followed up its title with a remarkable season, however both teams did pick up two wins apiece against top-25 teams.

There are two teams that are quite similar to the Wolverines from a production-lost standpoint: the 2011 runner-up, Butler, and the team that beat Michigan last season, Louisville.

All three teams needed to replace about half of their total minutes as well as nearly half of their rebounds and more than 65 percent of their assists.

The Bulldogs lost two big scorers in Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack Jr., who combined for 1,207 points, which is strikingly similar to the Wolverines, who are looking to replace the 1,279 points scored by Burke and Hardaway Jr.

But where the difference comes again is in what Michigan has been able to do this season versus what Butler did in 2011-12 and what Louisville is doing this season.

The Bulldogs followed up their title game appearance by going 11-7 in the Horizon League and dropping both games they played that season against top-25 teams. Like Michigan, Louisville seems to be hitting a good stride right now, but the Cardinals have yet to pick up a win over a top-25 opponent in three tries this season.

Michigan, on the other hand, has won eight straight, including its first six in Big Ten conference play. The Wolverines have gone 2-2 against top-25 teams.

Certainly, it's easier to go the other way and use departing players as a reason for why a team might not achieve the same success -- and it might be valid -- but with the Wolverines off to a strong start in Big Ten play, and looking better each game, their mentality has been something that has set them apart.

Even without their three biggest stars from last season, the Wolverines are on the brink of turning this season into a memorable one.

"This season was an opportunity and our coaches put it that way," Morgan added. "It was an opportunity for people to step into those minutes, step in to those shots."

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