Michigan to host Houston Baptist with chance to fine-tune offense

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 5, 2013

On Tuesday night, Duke provided each of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s future opponents a road map to stymieing the Wolverines.

The Blue Devils denied Michigan’s top shooter and scorer, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, from even getting the ball, let alone shooting it. Aside from an injury-shortened four-minute outing last year, his two field-goal attempts — both misses — matched a career low. Though his sprained ankle likely played a factor in Duke’s ability to stifle him, the Wolverines looked lost on offense without his production and ability to create space, much like in the loss to Charlotte in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship game.

But Saturday’s opponent, Houston Baptist, should be nothing more than a minor speed bump — effective Stauskas or not.

No. 22 Michigan, which hasn’t lost a non-conference home game since Jan. 9, 2011, should have no problem pushing the tempo and scoring in bunches against its Southland Conference opponent.

In two matchups against BCS-conference opponents this year, the 3-5 Huskies lost by a combined 42 points and needed a second-half push to beat Crowley’s Ridge, a program in the National Christian College Athletic Association.

Michigan coach John Beilein said after the Duke game that he wasn’t sure whether Stauskas’s ineffectiveness was more a product of the guard’s ankle injury or just a well-crafted, well-executed game plan by the Blue Devils. And though the Wolverines have a full week off following Saturday’s game, Beilein may opt to limit Stauskas’s minutes in preparation for likely-No. 1 Arizona, which will play in Ann Arbor a week from Saturday.

But in one of its final tune-ups before Big Ten play picks up in January, Michigan (5-3) needs to find alternative ways to generate offense when the team, and especially Stauskas, struggles to knock down 3-pointers. The Wolverines shot just 3-of-13 from deep on Tuesday.

“We just had trouble scoring without (Stauskas),” Beilein said. “The first half was really bad offensively.”

Thus far, the team’s secondary option has been sophomore guard Caris LeVert, who exploded in the second half en route to a game-high 24 points. Despite shooting just 3-for-16 from 3-point range in his past four games, LeVert — the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 15.1 points per game — still displayed an impressive ability to create his own offense, repeatedly getting into the lane and to the charity stripe, where he was 7-for-7.

“He’s growing every day,” Beilein said. “It’s good to have that other option out there.”

After struggling with consistency in San Juan, LeVert reasserted himself as a viable option in perhaps the nation’s toughest environment.

But the Wolverines’ ceiling hinges on sophomore forward Mitch McGary perhaps more than anyone else. McGary had one of his best statistical games this season in Durham, scoring 15 points and collecting 14 rebounds, but much of his production came after the game’s outcome had already been decided. While his work in the post was at times unstoppable against Duke — he shot 6-for-10, including two missed jumpers that frustrated Beilein — Michigan continued to struggle to find ways to involve him in its offensive game plan.

Last year, McGary’s production exploded in the NCAA Tournament thanks to the respect garnered by Trey Burke’s pick-and-roll offense. While McGary has had success in the pick-and-roll when it has been used in spots this year, no point guard on this year’s roster can run the play to the extent that last year’s consensus National Player of the Year could. Saturday’s game is one of the Wolverines’ final chances to experiment with new ways to get him the ball.