For a while, the departure of Trey Burke (and Tim Hardaway Jr.) left a vacuum of late game bravado. But now, if it wasn't obvious before, Michigan knows exactly who to call upon when a big shot is needed.
Even more importantly, Nik Stauskas knows. He knows it like he knows each spot on his driveway back home, or how he gets to know each spot on the floor during pregame warmups.
Of course, quite a bit happened before Stauskas's late game heroics. After all, there's a reason Michigan was able to survive a lengthy scoreless drought late in the game; the Wolverines' offensive performance before that stretch existed somewhere on the vague shadowy border between real and unreal, a dream but not a dream.
Shot after shot after shot went in, so consistently and, seemingly, so easily that I wondered if I was watching a real basketball game and not a comeback montage in a movie. It was like the Tune Squad's second half performance against the Monstars: cartoonishly, inexplicably great.
Watching Michigan bury shot after shot, I could only think about how Michigan would inevitably go cold, and that would be it. But, Michigan went into the half with 43 points, and it was all no longer a fluke. Even Iowa's high-octane offense couldn't put up 43 points in either half during their loss in the Kohl Center on Jan. 5.
Even so, despite everything that had happened Michigan carried a slim 5-point lead into the break, a lead that might as well have been nothing. Naturally, Michigan's start to the second half would go a long way toward determining the tenor of the remainder of the game.
An 8-2 run to open the second half made it perfectly clear this was just Michigan's night.
It's hard to believe that this team has operated with such cold-blooded efficiency, both from the perimeter and when it comes time to put the ball on the floor and deliver a pass to a big through a thicket of bodies in the paint.
Zak Irvin hit a jumper--oddly for him, of the 2-point variety--just before the second media timeout of the second half, putting Michigan up by 15. Even then, you knew that Wisconsin would make a run.
By the 4-minute mark, Wisconsin had cut the lead to just three when Frank Kaminsky buried a 3-point shot, making it 66-63, Michigan.
Then, Stauskas delivered the first of two answers, a 2-point jumper to give Michigan a chance to breathe on the heels of UW's 19-7 run. Sure, Michigan led by only five with four minutes to go, but that shot was like a dixie cup of cold water for a desert traveler.
Two straight buckets by the Badgers cut the lead down to one. Michigan needed a shot, needed someone to take the ball and stem the tide.
Even when Trey Burke got the ball in these situations, comfort was not derived from the fact that he was infallible or that he would not miss a big shot. For all of his skill, the best part about Trey Burke was the simple fact that you knew you could give him the ball late in the game, because he was not afraid.
Nik Stauskas will miss big shots before his Michigan career is done, just like Burke did. But one thing is clear: he is not afraid of the moment. He's been in it, he's seen it, and he's not afraid of it.
I'm not sure if this is something he realized on Saturday in Madison or if it's something he's known all along. Either way, in the long run, that fearlessness is far more important than a single regular season win.
With that said, the Wolverines won in the Kohl Center, and isn't that something.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/p8_dsZbNUbY" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
courtesy of UM Hoops
Stasukas, checked by UW F Nigel Hayes, crossed, stepped back and buried a three so perfect that I'm sure the smell of singed nylon permeated that end of the court.
He then went on to strangle any remaining hope UW hope, hitting six straight from the free throw line with ease. And when the clock hit zeroes, the Wolverines had their first win at the Kohl Center for the first time since 1999.
Although Stauskas will be remembered as the hero of this game, Michigan likely would not have survived without the contributions of Caris LeVert, who scored 20 points on 7-of-15 from the field (3-of-3 from beyond the arc). Yes, sometimes the offense gets lost in LeVert and his at times excessive dribbling. But, more often than not LeVert has shown himself to be a well above average playmaker, whether he's taking a shot or dishing it.
LeVert's four turnovers was a team-high, but so were his four assists (tied with Stauskas's four). His ability to wriggle into the lane and contort his body when necessary or rise up for a jumper is something that seems to be borderline indefensible. Opponents' best hope is that LeVert dribbles himself into bad spots--which he's done at times--or simply misses.
Either way, with playmakers like Stauskas and LeVert, a hyperathletic wing in Robinson who has revamped his image as a "passive" player significantly since the Arizona game and experienced bigs in Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, this is a very difficult team to defend.
Throw in Spike Albrecht, who can hit you with a three or two off of the bench, as can Zak Irvin, and the Wolverines' offensive balance is very nearly on par with Iowa's.
I haven't even mentioned freshman point guard Derrick Walton, who will only continue to get better; he hasn't been Trey Burke, but this team doesn't need him to be. An important, perhaps underappreciated stat of the game: in 31 minutes, Walton committed zero turnovers during his first trip to the Kohl Center. He committed just one and two turnovers at Minnesota and at Nebraska, respectively.
Walton's game at both ends of the floor is still a work in progress, but it's obvious that the bright lights of the Big Ten and two of its toughest venues are not too much for the 18-year-old.
As far as wins in the Beilein era go, this one has to rank somewhere in the top 5 in terms of sheer impressiveness. In no particular order, the tournament game against Florida, the 2011 win in East Lansing and Duke in 2010 all come to mind, and I think Saturday's win belongs among that pantheon.
Saturday's win brings the list of Big Ten venues at which John Beilein hasn't won to just one, the long straggler being Ohio State's Value City Arena.
Of course, you don't need to look at the schedule to know that things won't get much easier. Michigan welcomes the Iowa Hawkeyes to the Crisler Center on Wednesday, then hits to East Lansing over the weekend. A win at the Kohl Center would quickly lose some of its emotional punch if the Wolverines lose both of those games this week.
After a 6-4 start, Michigan has rattled off seven straight wins, including a 5-0 start to the Big Ten season. Again, there's a long way to go, but at least for now the Wolverines, even without Mitch McGary, are a legitimate contender for a Big Ten title. Not to go all SEC football on everyone, but winning the Big Ten regular season title might be the most difficult thing to do in college basketball today.
But, no matter what happens the rest of the way, on Jan. 18, 2014, Michigan won at the Kohl Center when almost nobody (myself included) expected them to win.
As random as college basketball can sometimes be, there was nothing random about Saturday's victory. Like an Oceans 11 heist, Michigan went into Madison and executed a seemingly impossible plan with remarkable ease.
However, the Hawkeyes won't care about any of this on Wednesday. The ball will go up, and, once again, fear will not be an option.