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SportsWednesday Column: Michigan basketball, an embarrassment of riches

Tracy Ko/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 8, 2013

Gus Johnson knows injustice when he sees it.

What Johnson saw as the Big Ten Network play-by-play man during the Michigan basketball team’s 95-67 victory over Iowa on Sunday was simply unfair. He said as much on the broadcast, encapsulating it in one swift sentence.

“John Beilein has an embarrassment of riches on his team,” Johnson said.

Think back a few years. When did it become OK to coo about Michigan basketball? I still remember a raging debate over whether Michigan fans should have stormed the court after the Wolverines, who started the season ranked 15th, beat No. 15 Connecticut at Crisler Arena. That was just less than four years ago.

That was an embarrassment. This is something different altogether.

Michigan is one of the country’s four remaining unbeaten teams, is ranked No. 2 in the land and, at 15-0, has started this well only once before. The Wolverines face Big Ten basement-dweller Nebraska at Crisler Center tonight (7 p.m., Big Ten Network) vying to match the program’s best start, set in 1985-86.

A victory over the Cornhuskers would pit Michigan against No. 15 Ohio State in Columbus on Sunday with a chance to set the program’s new benchmark, one that may not be eclipsed for a very, very long time.

Beilein, in his sixth season at the helm in Ann Arbor, never even reached the 16-win mark in his first and third season on campus.

An embarrassment of riches.

That seems pretty accurate for Michigan, a team winning by an average of 22.5 points per game while consistently rotating five true freshmen onto the floor. Just look down the bench. Beilein has more-than-serviceable options two and three deep at every position.

The Wolverines are two games into the Big Ten season and have already registered a pair of 28-point victories over Northwestern and Iowa. Sure, the Wolverines haven’t really been tested by talent on par with what else is around the Big Ten. But they sure haven’t faltered, either.

You can’t talk Michigan without mentioning sophomore floor general Trey Burke, who has the Wolverines atop the polls and is making a serious push to be the favorite in the national player of the year discussion, despite not ranking in the top-five nationally in any standard statistical category.

Burke is averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game, shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 76.7 percent from the free-throw line. All good numbers. But dig beneath the rigid statistical surface for a moment and you’ll find what makes this kid great.

Aside from being the leading scorer on the No. 2 team in America, Burke spearheads perhaps the most balanced offense in the college game, and he’s distributed the wealth with hardly a misstep. Managing a potent transition offense, Burke averages just 1.9 turnovers per game for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.04.

To put the numbers into context, Burke is on pace to supplant Gary Grant for the program’s assists-per-game crown. Grant averaged 6.88 assists per game during the 1987-88 season, but he also had a Michigan-record 150 turnovers, resulting in a meager 1.56 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Burke has made dashes to the basket, beaten defenders off the dribble and broken ankles with step-back jumpers. But he’ll tell you that scoring isn’t his focus. It’s his court vision that has the Wolverines as the only 15-0 team in the nation.

Thanks to Burke, Michigan has four players averaging 12-plus points per game. If you tally together the scoring averages of those four players — Burke, junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., freshman forward Glenn Robinson III and freshman guard Nik Stauskas — they alone are good for 60.6 points per game. In Beilein’s five previous seasons at Michigan, his entire teams have never averaged more than 66.9 or less than 62.6 points per game. Today, the Wolverines are averaging 82.0 points.

There’s no storming the court, not just yet. The expectations are a little higher now, and Michigan has one of the most exciting teams in the country in one of the best arenas. It’s a good time to be in Ann Arbor.

Pardon the numbers-heavy analysis, but the tale of the tape is the best measuring stick for Michigan. Just ask Gus Johnson.

Michigan’s got an embarrassment of riches.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.