PEORIA, Ill. — Thirty-six minutes from Nik Stauskas and the first playing time of Caris LeVert’s career sent the message loud and clear.
There’s a new order at guard for the Michigan basketball team.
Stauskas, the freshman, led the team with 22 points on four of five 3-point shooting, propelling the 3rd-ranked Wolverines to their 74-66 win over Bradley on Saturday at Carver Arena. But one man’s minutes on the court are another’s off the court, and senior guards Matt Vogrich and Eso Akunne rode the bench for longer than either had the whole season.
After spending the first six games coming off the bench, Stauskas got his first start, and it came at the expense of Vogrich, who played only the final four minutes of Saturday’s game. Akunne, after playing in each game this season, sat the entire time.
And though Stauskas has impressed with his offense — he’s now averaging over 14 points and has led the Wolverines in scoring over the last five games — it was his defense that prompted Michigan coach John Beilein to put him in the starting lineup.
“He’s doing too many other good things,” Beilein said. “If he hadn’t played such good defense the other night against (North Carolina State’s Scott) Wood, this wouldn’t have happened. But he’s shown he can guard some people, he’s shown he can get in the lane, he obviously can shoot.”
Though Stauskas’s progress was clear to see, and his spot in the starting lineup was probably overdue, LeVert’s presence on the court was a surprise. The freshman was long considered to be a redshirt candidate because of his raw skills, undeveloped frame, and the abundance of senior guards on the roster.
But his talent appeared to be too overwhelming for Beilein to keep him stationed on the bench the entire year.
“Caris, it was one of these things where we’re saying, our intention is not to just burn (the redshirt) for two minutes a game, but to put him in there, put him in the top eight or nine and hopefully he’ll play even more minutes than that,” Beilein said. “I loved the way he reacted to it, and he really wanted to do it too. If he didn’t want to, we wouldn’t have done it. He was anxious.”
The genesis of Beilein’s choice to burn the redshirt came in Tuesday night’s victory.
“I think we saw some things in the North Carolina State game where one of his roles will be, is to be a defensive stopper out there,” Beilein said. “To really go out and guard some people.”
Beilein also sees it necessary for LeVert to give junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. a breather. Though LeVert only played seven minutes, grabbing a rebound and picking up an assist, Beilein plans to put him in for Hardaway Jr. more often to give the Miami native three or four minutes of rest.
Freshman point guard Spike Albrecht continues to see time in order to give Burke a rest, a situation when Akunne saw time until Saturday.
Michigan has five seniors, and none of them played, aside from Vogrich’s four minutes, perhaps a signal of how Beilein plans to manage his rotation down the road.
“You don’t want a redshirt playing two minutes a game,” Beilein said, referring to LeVert. “So you gotta take minutes from somewhere in order to give it to the young man, but the young man’s proved it and (Vogrich and Akunne) are ready if we need them.”
In addition to the guards, Beilein also felt like making a change in the frontcourt to accommodate the homecoming of one of his big men.
Redshirt freshman forward Max Bielfeldt, who grew up in Peoria, played a career-high nine minutes and scored a basket.
Beilein asked junior center Jon Horford, who usually sees time as the Wolverines’ third post player behind redshirt junior Jordan Morgan and freshman Mitch McGary, to step back so that Bielfeldt could shine in front of his friends and family. Horford was benched the whole game.
But the gracious move for Bielfeldt may not just be a one-time occurrence.
Beilein said that there’s a running competition among the four big men for playing time, and that he’s still trying to see if the two-post offense is feasible. The drawback to that lineup, he says, is that it forces freshman forward Glenn Robinson III out of the lineup or that other players have to move out of their primary positions.
“Those four are trying to get the minutes of three.”