The predetermined leader of the Michigan men’s basketball team watched as the confetti fell.
The final game of the regular season had just ended with another victory, and his Wolverines celebrated as champions.
Michigan finished alone atop the Big Ten standings for the first time since 1986. All was just as Mitch McGary had hoped for and dreamed of before the season began.
But McGary had nothing to do with it.
Instead, the player many hoped would lead Michigan to that pinnacle was engrossed in his new roles: acting as assistant “coach” and leader of the bench mob, and watching from the sideline as the Wolverines tossed aside early struggles to become one of this year’s biggest surprises in a league full of them.
Michigan finished with a 15-3 conference record, the league’s best offense and its Player of the Year in Nik Stauskas — a guard who transformed from scrappy, quick-shooting freshman to a dominant sophomore. The Wolverines won their final five regular-season games, then two more in the conference tournament before falling in the title game to Michigan State.
Now, somehow, coach John Beilein’s team could be an underdog once more in the NCAA tournament.
Despite the Wolverines competing in the national title game a year ago and overcoming McGary’s injury to win the Big Ten by three games, Michigan heads into the Big Dance about as under the radar as a No. 2 seed can possibly be.
This year’s tournament field is as wide open as it has been in recent memory. Even so, Michigan’s doesn’t seem to come up in the broad discussion of potential champions.
Rather, it’s Florida, Kansas, Michigan State, Louisville, Wichita State, Arizona, Creighton and fellow No. 2 seed Wisconsin — which joins Michigan in first-weekend games in Milwaukee — that have been the subjects of the hype.
“I don’t think we’re going to look into too much how analysts or fans think we’re going to do, but this has been a really confident team all year,” Stauskas said. “People have doubted us all along. We realize as long as we stick to the game plan that Coach gives, really pay attention to what they’re saying and stick together as a group and just play Michigan basketball, I think we’ll be all right.”
Filling in the gaps
The Wolverines, who have blown past one team after another with sheer offense, lack interior size and have been inconsistent defensively and on the boards all season.
But Michigan already has surprised once. The Wolverines were ranked seventh and picked to finish second in the Big Ten before the season began, but that was under the belief that they would be led by McGary, a preseason All-America.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said the sophomore center, who went down to a back injury before the start of the Big Ten schedule. “I never thought they couldn’t achieve what they’ve achieved so far with or without me. The sky is the limit or whatever.
“But we have a mentality if someone goes down, we have a next-man-up mentality. I went down and the whole team stepped up. They came together and they’ve been like that ever since.”
Beilein lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. off last year’s team to the NBA, but he still had plenty of talent, bringing in six highly touted recruits to go along with a handful of returning players who appeared ready to take the next steps. McGary highlighted that bunch.
But four nonconference losses — including a head-scratching collapse to Charlotte — hinted at growing pains. And on Dec. 27 the team announced McGary, who had played in only eight games, needed back surgery.
Then something strange happened.
Michigan started winning.
First it was an eight-game streak to start the conference slate. Around the nation, viewers waited for the dominoes to fall. They didn’t.
Stauskas, after a freshman campaign that peaked at the end, transformed into a star in McGary’s absence, wowing with his ability to hit one clutch shot after another and inciting grins and insults with his post-dagger swagger and staredowns.
Fellow sophomore Caris LeVert also blossomed, experiencing the kind of metamorphosis few players do. A year ago, he averaged 10.8 minutes and 2.3 points per game as an obscure freshman. Suddenly, he was Michigan’s second-hand man.
“Losing Tim and Trey and Mitch early in the season, people really counted us out,” LeVert said. “I think we’ve been playing with a chip on our shoulder the whole season.”
The Wolverines still might not be playing their best basketball, Stauskas said, but they’re getting close.
“We’re coming along pretty well,” he said. “That’s where we’re really going to be a t our best once we start locking down defensively ... we’re confident in our abilities, and I think going forward, we’re only going to keep getting better.”