It's beginning to feel like last year.
Not necessarily the potential Final Four part, not just yet, even though an eight-point win over Iowa following a triumph at the Kohl Center is a major statement. The realization that we're witnessing something special, though? Something to treasure while it lasts? Oh, it's here.
From the jump, Nik Stauskas was on. He tied a career high with 26 points, shooting 4/5 from two, 4/9 from three, and 6/7 from the line; he also chipped in five rebounds, five assists, a block, a steal, and even shut down Iowa's Aaron White—an apparent mismatch on paper—in the first half. He's playing at a level that more than justifies the NBA talk, and he knows it.
"Offensively, I just think there are very few people that can stay in front of me right now, so I just tried to attack [White]," Stauskas said after the game. "My confidence has been on another level since the beginning of the season. Just with the games I've been playing and the success we've been having, it just keeps growing and growing."
His coach knows it, too.
"I watch him every day and he just has an ability right now that's very rare to get his own shot, to get to the rim, to make foul shots, to draw fouls," said John Beilein. "I don't know if I ever get surprised too much. I love his growth. You know what I am surprised [about] a little bit? For a shooter and a scorer, he's really embraced defense. He did a great job on Aaron White in the first half."
So does the opposition.
"The amazing thing about him has been his consistency all year," said Fran McCaffery. "He's obviously somebody that everybody marks when they're getting ready to play Michigan, yet he's still able to get shots out of the offense, get shots on his own. He's really doing a lot off the dribble, his length helps him there, and he's got great range, obviously."
The shot-making—and shot-creation—of Stauskas didn't just put points on the board for Michigan; it took away Iowa's hope for a high-tempo game. The Hawkeyes entered the game as the fastest-paced major-conference team in the country, averaging 73 possessions per game. Michigan, which averages 64, imposed their pace on Iowa, keeping them out of transition enough to make this a 66-possession game. The reason was simple, according to McCaffery.
"They were making shots. It's harder to run on makes than misses."
While Stauskas led the way, it takes a total team effort to defeat such a quality opponent, of course. With Derrick Walton limited to just three minutes, all in the first half, due to flu-like symptoms, Spike Albrecht had to play 35 minutes in his first career start. He thrived, scoring seven points, dishing out seven assists to zero turnovers, and making perhaps the play of the game. With under four minutes to go, Iowa had cut the Michigan lead to just four points when Roy Devyn Marble corralled a loose ball at halfcourt. Albrecht was the only Wolverine back on defense, facing a two-on-one, when he jumped Marble's crosscourt pass and immediately got the ball upcourt to Glenn Robinson III, who found Zak Irvin in the corner for a game-altering three.
"To be honest, because they had a two-on-one going, I was like, 'I'm too little, we're kinda screwed either way,' so I just went for a steal and luckily I was able to jump it and Zak knocked down a huge shot for us," Albrecht said.
Iowa would get the lead down to three with 2:32 left when Spike struck again, beating the Hawkeye zone with a lob that Robinson just barely managed to stuff into the basket; from there, Michigan pulled away. Albrecht also pulled off the same trick he did to Florida in last year's tournament, sneakily pilfering an Iowa inbounds pass and hitting a quick jumper just a split-second after a GRIII dunk to give the Wolverines a big four-point swing early in the second half.
To seal the win, Jordan Morgan capped off a stellar performance—12 points, 5/6 FG, 7 rebounds in 32 minutes—by using every inch of his vertical to block Melsahn Basabe's layup attempt with 46 seconds left and the Wolverines clinging to a six-point lead.
Zak Irvin (11 points, 3/7 3-pt) also chipped in a couple critical plays; before capping off Spike's steal with a triple, he followed up a three-pointer with a fast break layup in addition to keeping a possession alive with an offensive rebound in the corner. Glenn Robinson III added 14 points despite struggling with his outside shot (6/10 2-pt, 0/5 3-pt); he did his best work defensively in the second half, limiting Basabe to two points after he'd poured in 15 in the first stanza. The only player who had a really rough game was Caris LeVert (5 points, 2/9 FG, three turnovers), who almost single-handedly brought Iowa back into the game with an inbounds turnover that led to a White layup followed on the next possession by an awful crosscourt pass that Iowa easily picked off and turned into another layup to make the deficit just six.
After White and Stauskas traded baskets, Irvin sank a dagger to put Michigan up seven, then the lob to GRIII put the game away. Michigan had successfully forced Iowa to play their game; in fact, they did even more than that, outscoring the Hawkeyes 12-4 in transition, beating them at their specialty while playing at a more comfortable pace.
"I thought we had a good pace," said John Beilein. "We ran when we wanted to run. We had a lot of trust in this team that they would really understand what the plan is ... I liked our pace today."
Now it's on to East Lansing for a titanic matchup with the Big Ten lead at stake. Michigan is playing with house money after consecutive wins over top-ten teams. They're also playing with Nik Stauskas, which may be the biggest advantage of them all.