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March 20, 2014
Nik Stauskas ready to atone for last year's NCAA showing
Nik Stauskas hasn't watched last year's national championship game, Michigan's 82-76 loss to Louisville - not a minute of it. The sophomore registered as many fouls as points (three) and took only two shots in the finale, struggling with the rest of his teammates to put the setback behind him heading into a long summer.
By then, he had already made the decision to stay in Ann Arbor and work on his game with fellow sophomore Caris LeVert. What he calls a subpar showing in U-M's six-game run to the title game was all the motivation he needed when he got homesick.
"I was going to stay at school regardless what happened in that championship game," Stauskas said. "But that by itself added a whole new level of motivation to it. Throughout the summer there were so many times I felt like going home, where I didn't want to be there anymore, but that game and really the whole tournament run motivated me."
He has watched the Florida game a few times, he admitted with a smile. He went six-for-six from three-point range in the Elite Eight match-up in helping the Wolverines blow by the Gators.
That was the highlight, though.
"I thought my freshman year I played pretty well, but then on the biggest stage in the tournament I didn't," he said. "This is another chance to prove myself again."
Stauskas has thrived on being the underdog throughout his career. He was miffed when he was ranked in the 70s in the final Rivals.com offering during his senior year, and he set out to prove he deserved to be ranked higher.
Some have discounted his team's chances in the tournament following a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament finals. Forget that Michigan had won the Big Ten by three games and captured seven straight wins - the "what have you done for me lately" crowd seemed to anoint MSU the favorite to capture the NCAA title.
Privately, Stauskas has taken note, guaranteed. Publicly, he's saying all the right things.
"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," he said. "People have doubted us all along. We realize as long as we stick to the game plan that Coach [Beilein] 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.
"You see a lot of different types of basketball play throughout the Big Ten, and this year we've had so many games that have been decided by five points or less. We've really played well in those last few minutes to seal those games up, so I just think those games have done a good job of preparing us for this tournament because you're not going to blow teams out and you're going to have a lot of games where it comes down to the last few minutes. I think we're ready for that."
Beilein thinks so, too. This team is as young as last year's, he noted, with one senior [Jordan Morgan] and one junior [Jon Horford]. They have the heart of last year's team, he added, and the Big Ten player of the year.
The difference - the men handling the ball aren't Trey Burke. Last year's team was Burke's team, and he'd often have the ball in his hands when the team needed a bucket. This year it's been Stauskas taking the big shot, and he'll be ready if called upon again.
"I'm just going to continue trying to do what I've been doing, be aggressive when the ball is in my hands," he said. "Whether that's scoring or making plays for other guys on the team, that's what I 'm going to do. Coach Beilein has put a lot of trust in me throughout the season in doing that.
"But regardless of who you are, you're going to need the ball to bounce your way a few times, a little bit of luck. Looking back on it, we had no business wining the Kansas game last year. We didn't defend the whole game or play well. Somehow we ended up winning."
This might be their last chance to do it with Stauskas in the lineup. There's increasing speculation that this will be his last year in a Michigan uniform - that he'll take the three goggles and the swagger with him to the NBA next year.
For now, though, he'll be the go-to guy on a team with aspirations of winning it all, and he's relishing every moment.
"I hope when I start doing things like that, that my teammates can feed off my energy and it kind of brings everyone up," he said. "I just love playing basketball.
"This is what I've been doing my whole life. The fact that I have an opportunity to play on one of the biggest stages in the world, you know, I just try to enjoy every minute and have as much fun as I possibly can have."