It’s alright if you still can’t believe it. Even John Beilein couldn’t quite wrap his head around it after the game. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)
I’m not talking about Michigan winning its first outright Big Ten championship since 1986. While it’s hard to believe it’s been that long, Michigan fans have been coming to terms with this possibility for a few games now. In fact, at this point, it was expected that Michigan wrap up the title race, if not in this game then in the next one.
What Beilein couldn’t quite understand, and what could possibly be difficult for any diligent basketball observer to understand, is what Michigan did in the first half of its 84-53 shellacking of Illinois on Tuesday night in Champaign.
The Wolverines scored 52 points in the first half, more than Illinois’ past four opponents had scored the entire game. Michigan’s effective field goal percentage was a staggering 87.5, aided by its 11-for-14 shooting from beyond the arc. The whole thing had an element of the unbelievable to it; how could a team possibly play this well?
“Right now, I’m trying to put it together, how we could have played that well tonight,” Beilein told reporters after the game, standing on a court his Michigan team had so decisively conquered just an hour or so earlier.
Of all the blissfully incomprehensible occurrences during Michigan’s romp through Champaign, it was Nik Stauskas whose myth grew the most legendary. Stauskas scored 24 points on 11 shots, including seven made 3-pointers. The sophomore was utterly unstoppable against a team that prides itself on, well, stopping people. The Illini are ranked 14th in the country in defensive efficiency and had shut down Michigan State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio State in their last four games.
Stauskas was wanton and merciless when it came to the destruction of the Illinois defense, dropping long-range bombs indiscriminately with little regard for the law of averages. A rational person would hold that, even after Stauskas hit an absurd four of five 3-point shots in the first half, the sophomore was bound to cool off eventually. Luckily for Michigan, there was nothing rational about Stauskas’s performance on Tuesday night.
When he was asked about the young Canadian’s performance, all Beilein could do was let out a disbelieving chuckle.
“That was pretty good,” Beilein said. “Nik likes to do things the right way. If you watch his practice habits, it’s all about perfection. You’re not always going to get open that much, and you have to shoot it anyhow. You’re good enough to do that. Because he’s 6-6 and he can see over people. So it was very good.”
One of the surest signs of Michigan’s appreciation for the magnitude of its accomplishment as a team, as well as Stauskas’s individual accomplishments on the night, was the random fits of laughter that periodically interrupted the post-game press conference. The Wolverines usually approach these with grim determination no matter the outcome, but it was the team’s harried leader Jordan Morgan who offered the most absurd take on Stauskas’s shooting.
“Yeah, it wasn’t good enough,” Morgan said. “He fell short of the record.”
He could barely get the words out before the all four players at the podium busted out laughing.
While his teammates joke, the consideration for Stauskas as Big Ten Player of the Year is getting more and more serious with each game. The young Canuck may have supplied the coup de grâce to any remaining argument against him winning the award with his performance on Tuesday. He certainly won over one player who knows a thing or two about Player of the Year awards.
Stauskas= B1G POY
— Trey Burke (@Trey_Burke3) March 5, 2014
It’s fitting that departed Michigan point guard Trey Burke would weigh in on a night in which Stauskas seemed so Burke-like. Stauskas dominated the game in a way that made the outcome feel inevitable, with a flair for the implausible. An apt summation of the night occurred just before halftime, when Michigan inbounded the ball with four seconds left. Stauskas found himself with the ball about 28 feet away from the basket and let fly, connecting on his deepest three of the game.
As Detroit Free Press writer Mark Snyder noted after the game, as the ball flew through the net Beilein put his marker down on the scorer’s table and said, “Wow.”
Beilein made a more lengthy argument for Stauskas’s Big Ten Player of the Year candidacy after the game.
“When we really needed him to come up big several times this year, he’s been very, very good,” the coach said. “He loves basketball, he loves practicing. When you work hard, as he has, this is a good reward, that he’s in that picture for an all-league, player of the year type of candidate.”
If Stauskas should be so fortunate as to win the Big Ten Player of the Year award, he and the rest of his Michigan teammates hope it takes the same function as the Big Ten championship — one goal accomplished with more ahead. There’s a feeling of finality to winning the regular-season title, but the Wolverines know they still have a ways to go this season. Winning the outright title is somewhere between a stop on the road and a destination, or perhaps a little of both.
“There was yelling and screaming in there and we held the trophy up and we sang and we did some extra shout-outs to everybody,” Beilein said. “They see this as a great highlight.
“I think they’d like to have more.”