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January 5, 2014

Positive signs, but too early to know U-M's ceiling

Michigan took care of business against Northwestern as expected, pulling away for a 74-51 win following a slow start to improve to 2-0 including an impressive road win at Minnesota. Winning the Big Ten is the goal, but is it realistic without big man Mitch McGary?

The Big Ten schedule makers have given the Wolverines an opportunity for a strong start. U-M has a tricky road game at Nebraska coming up Thursday, followed by a home game with Penn State the following Tuesday, and could be 4-0 heading into a tough road game at Wisconsin.

That's where the good news ends. Schedule is huge in competing for titles, and unlike past years when they'd play bottom feeders twice, Michigan gets Penn State and Northwestern only once. That's two should-be-guaranteed wins instead of four.

On a positive note, Michigan's big men have more than picked up the slack in McGary's absence. Jordan Morgan is playing with confidence and running the floor well. Jon Horford has gained confidence in his jump shot and has become a rebounding machine.

"I love that our big guys were able to get 18 and 16 between the three of them today," Beilein said, including late minutes from Max Bielfeldt. "We're finding ways to make up for injury to Mitch, and they did a great job today."

The chemistry continues to evolve, too.

"They're getting used to minutes they are playing," Beilein said. "We have a better feel for what each other on the team is doing. We should have a good rotation of eight or nine."

Guys are starting to realize their strengths and weaknesses, too, and the coaches are playing to them. Each has had something he needed to improve through 12 games.

For Derrick Walton Jr. it was being more aggressive with his minutes. The freshman became too passive in December after a strong start, not attacking as much as he should. Against Minnesota he started taking it to the rim but tried to finish over two men instead of finding the open man - on Sunday, he finished and finished well.

"What I do like is he was creating more either for himself [or a teammate] and doing it efficiently," Beilein said. "Sometimes you can mistake activity for achievement. He was doing things before that weren't conducive to finding open men. He's become much better at picking spots where he can score. He and Zak [Irvin], the game is slowing down for them as we go in to the second semester."

Irvin, meanwhile, has become a sniper from long range. The Wolverines wouldn't have beaten the Gophers without his five triples. The next step is to be more aggressive in taking it to the rim, something he's capable of.

Sophomore Caris LeVert needed to take a step back from looking for his points and pick up the intensity on defense, and he's getting there. He plays with his head down too often and doesn't seem to have as good a grasp of the read and react offense as those around him - expected, since he hasn't played as much as many of his teammates. Beilein insisted he wasn't concerned about LeVert and likes what he's seen from his sophomore in terms of effort on the defensive end.

The offense, though, will continue to run through sophomore Nik Stauskas. Like Duke, Northwestern played to limit Stauskas' touches. He struggled early, but heated up to finish with 18 points.

"My message to the team is every game we have to go into it prepared for any game plan they give us," Beilein said. "They weren't 'no catch' today, but containing today, a different type of defense. Synergy had them with one of the best pick and roll defenses in the country. We had to make some adjustments in the angles and things like that, and it's a puzzle.

"This game continues to change, and Nik is learning to change with it. He made some glaring errors today, then adjusted down the stretch."

It's only going to get tougher. The teams the Wolverines face twice in Big Ten play are all masters of finding weaknesses and identifying tendencies. Besides the Big Three of Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State, all ranked in the top five, Iowa has emerged as a potential thorn. The Hawkeyes nearly pulled out a road win over the Badgers - beating them or any of the other three on the road will be a chore, and going 3-1 at home against them would be an accomplishment.

Purdue is struggling, but it's never easy winning in Mackey Arena, and the February slate reads like a murderer's row - at Indiana, a reprieve at home against the Cornhuskers, at Iowa, at OSU, Wisconsin and MSU at home and at Purdue.

Michigan will drop some games in that stretch, and the pundits (as usual) will write them off. But the experience they'll gain will prepare them well for the postseason, which might seem easier in comparison. U-M is talented enough to make a run, and with the right draw go deep into the tournament even with a fourth- or fifth-place Big Ten finish.

That's not the goal, of course, and the Wolverines could surprise. They have one of the better coaching staffs in the conference and seem to be jelling.

There will be bumps in the road, but if they remain healthy, this will be a fun team to watch come March.


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