Stauskas adjusts to star treatment from opponents

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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 28, 2014

Becoming the ‘it’ guy for the Michigan men’s basketball team hasn’t been all open 3-pointers and clear paths to the basket for Nik Stauskas.

Last year, as the fourth or fifth option, Stauskas was able to play as well as his talent would allow. The deck wasn’t stacked against him.

But as he’s emerged this season as an elite player, the sophomore guard has had to deal with the auxiliary effects of a breakout season — becoming opponents’ focal point. Rather than simply being one of No. 10 Michigan’s best players — someone worth paying attention to — Stauskas is now the object of teams’ gameplans.

Duke face-guarded Stauskas in early December, sticking guard Tyler Thornton on the guy who had carried Michigan’s offense to that point in the season and beyond. Stauskas was shadowed as soon as Michigan took over possession and denied the ball at all spots on the court. The Blue Devils removed Stauskas from the action, aided by the ankle injury he was already nursing. He could muster just two field-goal attempts, neither a make. Duke forced Michigan to play four-on-four and the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize in the 66-50 loss.

“That Duke game was a big game for me, because they kind of shut me down and they just paid a lot of attention to me on and off the ball,” Stauskas said last week.

Since then, teams have tried a few tactics — almost always unsuccessful — to prevent Stauskas from scoring opportunities.

“That game by itself was a pretty big learning experience for me, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job after that of adjusting to how teams play me,” he said.

Initially, opponents played Stauskas tight, not giving him space to fire a jump shot and daring him to beat them off the dribble. But as Stauskas has flashed his improved strength, ball handling and floor vision, he has punished teams with high-flying dunks and nifty passes around the rim.

In Big Ten play, teams have tried to wear Stauskas out on the defensive end, trying to render him less effective on the other side of the court.

Penn State guard DJ Newbill commanded the Nittany Lions offense on Jan. 14, going at Stauskas repeatedly until the Mississauga, Ont. native was gassed and came out of the game on a substitution, slamming a chair in frustration. Newbill scored 17 points, but Stauskas couldn’t be kept down offensively, picking up 21 points and registering six rebounds in the 80-67 win.

In last Wednesday’s win over No. 10 Iowa, 6-foot-9 forward Aaron White tired out Stauskas by backing him down in the post en route to 14 consecutive points in the second half. While Stauskas was less effective scoring the ball during that run by White, he still picked his spots during the second frame, tying a career-high with 26 points.

“I understand I’m not the best defender in the world,” Stauskas said. “Teams are going to attack me. That’s exactly what teams used to do to me last year. They would have four down, have the guy at the top of the key and just go at me. So I understand that teams are going to do that, and I’ve got to be prepared.”

Most recently, against Michigan State on Saturday, Spartan standout Gary Harris hounded Stauskas all night. He played physical defense, grabbing at the sophomore, holding him and bodying closely.

Again, Stauskas found a way to stay effective, using screens and manufacturing enough space between his defender to let his 3-pointer fly — six times in total, and he made five of them in the 80-75 win.

“He was limited to even touching the ball,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after the game. “Once we got used to that, then we said, ‘We’ve got to attack in different ways, and Nik can score off some residual things.’ ”

In the final minutes, Michigan worked to get Stauskas the ball so that he could be fouled to shoot free throws to ice the game, but the Spartans double-teamed him, even taking him to the ground on one inbounds play.

Freshman point guard Derrick Walton got the ball instead on most of the final possessions, and he drilled all but one of his free throws.

Stauskas could watch Walton’s free throws and relish that once again, he’d taken an opponent’s best shot and responded by continuing to make his own.