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January 16, 2013

Hoops: Big Ten will be even tougher than expected

Michigan faced a backlash of criticism following a loss at Ohio State in which the Wolverines erased a 21-point deficit, only to fall 56-53. Some labeled them a "pretender" after the game, while one of the freshmen - Nik Stauskas - received an unfair amount of criticism after being held scoreless.

First things first - yes, Sunday's game was a winnable game, and it's the team that goes on the road and wins some of those that will capture a title this year. Wisconsin, the team some had written off, drew first blood in that respect in improving to 4-0 with a key win at No. 2 Indiana Tuesday night, 64-59.

"I said earlier in the year - the Big Ten is going to be so strong this year, with so many high-level teams," Michigan head coach John Beilein said Monday. "Last year we were a champion with a 13-5 record. Now, even 12-6 could be a Big Ten title winner. It's just going to be very challenging.

"I don't like to make excuses about our young team, but we found out, the way that game started [in Columbus], about the speed and the strength of the Big Ten, the way the game is officiated. Our young guys are going to really learn how this game is played in this league very quickly, and it will be very hands-on."

Which means the freshmen, in particular, will have to grow up quickly. Of the five who saw action at Ohio State, the moment seemed too big (at times) for all but two: point guard Spike Albrecht and big man Mitch McGary.

Stauskas, in particular, had a rough outing. He was 0-for-3 from three-point range and received backlash in social media after struggling to his worst performance as a collegian. As anyone who runs a team website knows, every message board has its handful (or two) of Chicken Littles and Negative Nancies. Twitter, however, has allowed the fools to come out in full force, hiding behind their monikers.

"Can't even read my mentions because of all the negativity being thrown at me," Stauskas wrote after jumping on his account. "I'll continue to learn and grow as a player. Back to the gym."

As promised, he proceeded to put up a number of shots when the team arrived home from Columbus Sunday night.

"While an opposing arena can contain thousands of loud jeers and a few choice comments about your mother, Twitter allows a fan a direct line of communication to the player,"
Yahoo.com's Eric Adelson
wrote. "And when a long list of people think you can't shoot straight, it's hard not to think, 'Does everyone feel this way?'"

Stauskas even wondered who the critics were, telling Adelson, "I was kind of surprised these were Michigan fans."

"The downside," Beilein said, "is that not all followers will be with you through thick and thin."

Some, too, will pose as Michigan fans and criticize because they have nothing better to do.

Ignoring all of them might just be the best strategy. As veteran catcher Crash Davis told Nuke LaLoosh before the rookie headed off to the big leagues, "these big league hitters are going to light you up like a pinball machine for awhile. Don't worry about it. You be cocky and arrogant even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You've gotta play this game with fear and arrogance."

"If you start to explain yourself, you kind of look stupid yourself," Stauskas said. "I use Twitter all the time, and this was the first time I've dealt with negative feedback - but to get 200 positive messages today, that was really nice to see."

In the meantime, he'll continue to get his shots and will no doubt have his share of big games. They'll just be tougher to come by in a loaded Big Ten.

"We said the foul trouble is going to limit his touches, and Ohio's defense is going to limit his touches, as well," Beilein said. "You don't know until you see it. They did the same thing last year against some of our guys, locked the rails and made you play 2-on-2 in the middle. Between having Craft and [Evan Ravenel], those are tough guys to be able to beat.

"We need to find other ways of getting him open."

Notebook

  • Beilein said he thought Michigan prepared well for the Buckeyes.

    "We thought we did as much as we could by playing Arkansas, by playing North Carolina State, Kansas State, Pitt, going to Bradley," he said. "We did everything we could. There are some things in the process you can't speed up no matter what you do.

    "The freshmen have really performed way above what many freshmen normally do, but this one was too difficult a task."

  • Beilein said he was pleased with the role of the big men in the offense.

    "All things are a work in progress," he said. "Things in practice we continue to work at, whether we throw the ball inside or whatever we do. We've got everything on the drawing board. We've been averaging 80 points a game going into today, so who we threw it to and how we did it was not a big concern going into that game, and why would it be?

    "Overall, when you have a game like that with such great perimeter defense, that's certainly an option we have to explore."

    Plain and simple, he said, Ohio State brought it defensively.

    "I just think they're really a good team," he said. "You have to play well and you have to play with incredible poise in this league.

    "They have great experience, good length, great quickness. Whether it's match-ups, I don't know. Craft is a great, great defensive player. - he impacts the game like a great middle linebacker or a great safety can impact a football game. That's what he does. But the rest of their guys are really good defenders as well."


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