Michigan head coach John Beilein doesn't have his NBA backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. anymore, but there's still plenty of talent. He and his coaches will spend the next several weeks - maybe even the season - honing it and trying to find the combinations that work best.
One thing's clear after nine games, though - there isn't one "go-to" guy in the rotation like Burke was (and Hardaway, at times) in the past two years. One game it might be guard Caris LeVert (24 points at Duke), another it could be Nik Stauskas, who scored 25 and knocked down six of nine triples with Houston Baptist inexplicably stuck to a zone look.
The Wolverines were solid in looking for the extra pass Saturday, and Stauskas happened to be the beneficiary.
"Friday [against] zone or man in practice, we went three for 20 from three," Beilein said. "The whole idea was keep shooting if you get open, you'll start knocking them down.
"But I've never seen an 18 to 1 assist to turnover ratio at halftime, in a game or whatever. It was really good. In order to get that you have to have penetration, go north south a little bit, and you've got to screen well. We were able to do that. In transition you've also got to come up with eyes on the rim looking to score, but also have really good vision."
Sharing the wealth
The unselfishness was one area Saturday that impressed Beilein. When he moved Stauskas to the two guard and let him handle the ball a bit near the end of the game, the pride of Canada (who had 60 friends and family in attendance) drove and dished to set up big men for two easy finishes.
When the Wolverines were struggling to defend early, redshirt junior Jon Horford stepped in and provided some key defense and rebounding.
"Once we figured out we had to amp up our intensity on defense, that was a big change," Beilein said. "Jon was a great catalyst off the bench by jumping their ball screens, and all of a sudden they stopped getting downhill, open shots. I'd love to know their defensive field goal percentage after the first five minutes, because we were outstanding after that. Obviously, that propels our running game."
And makes players like Glenn Robinson III (17 points, four rebounds, four assists against HBU) more effective. Robinson was better early in the year as an assist man, as likely to pass off the dribble as shoot a jumper. He wasn't necessarily more aggressive (or as aggressive as many would like him to be), but he played smarter and cut harder.
That started in practice with his leadership, Beilein said. Rather than pout about his quiet showing against Duke, Robinson III brought his 'yes face' to practice and the team fed off his energy. He also brought it to the game.
"He just hadn't made shots," Beilein said. "He's working at it, but he hasn't made shots. Then you lose a little confidence.
"If you look at the shot numbers, three guys have taken a boatload, and Glenn is one of them. He hasn't made them. How can we practice better to make those? It's, 'how can we get you in the right spots?'"
He's been a residual player in the past, and that's where he'll continue to be at his best. And yes, part of it is being more aggressive. When you're the athlete Robinson is, able to leap to 12 feet, three inches, you should be getting six to eight points on offensive rebounds and putbacks alone. That's about want-to and desire.
It will never be about points first, though. Last year's Wolverines set individual goals aside for the good of the team, often deferring to Burke. There's NBA talent on this club, too, but it's even more important that they ride the hot hand and do the gritty, dirty work needed to win games (especially against talented teams like No. 1 Arizona, which visits Crisler Center Saturday), especially while freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. continues to learn.
For some, that means following sophomore center Mitch McGary's lead. He might be "unique," as Beilein said, but he's got the intangible of knowing one speed and one speed only. If he gets beat on a play he takes it personally.
There have been signs that the Wolverines could become a Big Ten contender. Beilein, for one, isn't panicking about the team's 6-3 start.
"It's only been choppy because we've been on the road," he said. "Only one or two teams - North Carolina was one of the few unranked teams to win over a ranked team at their home (Michigan State). Arizona is another part of the puzzle to put together. It's like Michigan State, Wisconsin, those teams that come into your building. You've got to play at your best. Arizona has played a very challenging schedule, and not just at home."
It will take another team effort to beat them.
"Caris didn't have opportunities [against HBU], but other people got shots," Beilein said. "That's the way the game is going to go. We have other guys, and he played a great defensive game.
"We're never going to get caught up in how many shots, how much people scored. It's, 'did we play together and win?' We're not worried about what Caris, Nik or Spike got. That will take care of itself."
As long as they continue to buy in, the potential for an outstanding season - including another long tournament run - will remain on the table.