Stauskas, Wolverines look to rebound in primetime against Ohio State

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 10, 2014

Since the start of the 2011-12 season, John Beilein’s teams have lost just 24 times.

It’s an impressive mark for the Michigan men’s basketball coach, especially considering that a majority of his team’s games came against Big Ten opponents, widely considered to be the best conference in the nation over that stretch.

But even more impressively, just two of those losses were followed by another loss.

So, if history is any indication, the Wolverines should be riding high when they enter Columbus on Tuesday night to take on an inconsistent Ohio State squad. The 22nd-ranked Buckeyes, once the No. 3 team in the nation before losing four straight and five of six in January — including a shocking home loss to Penn State — have welcomed in the new month with an unblemished 3-0 record in February.

Beginning Feb. 1, Ohio State knocked off a pair of ranked foes, Wisconsin and Iowa, before dismantling Purdue on Saturday.

The same month, though, hasn’t been as kind to Michigan (9-2 Big Ten, 17-6 overall). After the Wolverines’ 10-game win streak was snapped at Indiana on Feb. 2, Saturday’s loss at Iowa was embarrassingly uncompetitive. For a team struggling away from home this month, Tuesday night represents Michigan’s third road game in 10 days and its fifth game in 13 days.

These clusters of games in such a condensed timeframe are so troublesome to Beilein that the coach is addressing the issue, saying that he’ll “continue to have conversations with the Big Ten about it.” In the meantime, Beilein is doing his best to simply ready his team for its next opponent.

“We’re going to be as ready as we can be,” Beilein said. “It’s very hard to get better when you’re just preparing for a game.”

After the Wolverines were carved up defensively on Saturday, especially in their transition defense, Beilein said all he truly wants is to have some time to hold a couple of fundamentals-oriented practices rather than focusing almost exclusively on game preparations. But he also acknowledged that after losses like the one at Iowa, sometimes getting back on the court quickly can be a blessing.

“It is a beauty that one of the good things in basketball is you play sometimes two or three times a week. One of the bad things in basketball is sometimes you play two or three times a week,” he said. “You either get over a loss or you get your momentum going.”

Thanks to Michigan State’s loss on Sunday, Michigan will still hold a share of the Big Ten’s top spot when it takes the floor against the Buckeyes (6-5, 19-5) in a primetime, nationally televised spot.

At 71.9 points per game, good for ninth in the conference, Ohio State’s offense stands in stark contrast to Iowa’s top-ranked offense that ran circles around the Wolverine defense. Taking after its best player, Aaron Craft — perhaps the best perimeter defender in the country, but at times a complete non-factor on offense — the Buckeyes’ defense is good enough to keep them in any game, but their offense can be enough of an eyesore to lose very winnable contests.

Michigan shouldn’t have to worry about another opposing player lighting it up like Michigan State’s Garry Harris, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble have in the past few weeks, but it’s Craft’s ability to take the Wolverine of his choosing — likely sophomore guard Nik Stauskas — out of the game that has Beilein worried.

Stauskas is far and away Michigan’s best offensive weapon, but in two losses last week, he was held to just 16 combined points on 4-of-12 shooting as he struggled to fight out of ball denials.

Stauskas should see a large dose of Craft, who averages 2.6 steals per game, but Ohio State can also throw guard Shannon Scott, who averages 2.0 steals per game, at the Mississauga, Ont. native. Together, the duo form one of the best defensive backourt pairings in the country — “as good as I’ve ever seen,” Beilein said.

On Saturday, Stauskas showed visible signs of frustration as a hostile crowd — aided by his poor shooting night — compounded into an afternoon worth forgetting.

It has become apparent that Michigan’s offense goes as Stauskas does. Learning to handle that load physically, but perhaps more importantly, mentally, will be the key going forward.

“When you put up the numbers that Nik’s put up this year … you’ve got to be ready to take the other teams’ best shot,” Beilein said. “You have to be emotionally really strong, especially on the road where you are the villain, you are not being applauded by everybody. So staying emotionally calm through all that is challenging for everybody. It was for (former guard Trey Burke), it will be for Nik — it’s part of the process.”