The TSX Files: Michigan

Consistency is the elusive variable Michigan coach John Beilein has been looking for. Going into the Wisconsin game, what has allowed Beilein to solidify his 2011-12 starting lineup has been the much improved play of sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz and the stunning debut of freshman point guard Trey Burke.

GETTING INSIDE
Lineup becomes a constant


Consistency is the elusive variable Michigan coach John Beilein has been looking for as he puts his team through its initial outings in the Big Ten Conference race.

Beilein spent the first two months of the 2011-12 season testing his personnel, working his rotation and using certain players in a variety of situations. The goal was to settle on a lineup by the start of the rigorous league schedule.

Well, the Michigan coach has possibly found his answer, and found it likely was much earlier than he might have expected. After a tough 73-71 loss at Indiana on Thursday -- Michigan's first defeat in the Big Ten -- the Wolverines were preparing to host a ranked Wisconsin team a few days later and send out the same starting lineup for the 13th straight game.

The expected elements in that rock-solid lineup are senior guard Zack Novak, sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and sophomore forward Jordan Morgan. All three came into preseason camp in October as proven, reliable returning starters.

What has allowed Beilein to solidify his 2011-12 starting group has been the much improved play of sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz and the stunning debut of freshman point guard Trey Burke.

Smotrycz will go into the Wisconsin game averaging around 11 points and a team-best 7.1 rebounds per game. Burke faces the Badgers (12-4, 1-2 Big Ten) with averages of about 15 points and five assists per game.

Barring injury and any significant dips in performance, Beilein will likely stick with his fixed lineup since it has produced a stunning start to the season, a return to the national rankings, and has the Wolverines (12-3, 2-1) in the mind-set that they can compete with anyone on the schedule, including the Badgers.

STAR WATCH: First, the name immediately catches the attention of just about everyone. Michigan sophomore G Tim Hardaway Jr. arrived in Ann Arbor with significant expectations, given the fact that his father had crafted a long and productive career in the NBA. Hardaway led Michigan with 76 3-pointers last season as a freshman, and he has nearly 40 career games with double-figure scoring. Proof that he continues to improve as a complete player is found in Hardaway's assist total, which has jumped from 1.7 assists per game last season to nearly three per game in the current campaign. Hardaway had 19 points in the two-point loss at Indiana that dropped the Wolverines to 2-1 in the Big Ten.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Just about the most unlikely place on the planet for the Wolverines to find the answer to their most pressing problem or the missing piece of their puzzle would be Columbus, in the heart of bitter rival and neighbor Ohio.

But that's just where freshman point guard Trey Burke came from, and he has made quite an impact in his few months in Ann Arbor. Michigan moved into the start of Big Ten play as a confident and seemingly complete team, thanks to its ambassador from the capital of the dreaded Buckeye state. Burke, who played on the same high school team as Ohio State's sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger, took his talents north. Burke, teamed with a talent like Sullinger, must have made things brutal for the opposition, because under his direction the Wolverines are meshing and playing like a Big Ten contender.

When point guard Darius Morris jumped to the NBA after a brilliant sophomore season, it left a chasm in the Michigan offense. Burke came on board and has been what Michigan coach John Beilein has modestly called "atypical" for a freshman.

Burke used the first two months of the season as a springboard into the Big Ten meat of the schedule and was impressive along the way. He is second among all freshmen in the Big Ten with about 13 points per game and his five assists per game rank third in the conference overall.

Beilein has leaned heavily on Burke, who averaged better than 33 minutes per game through the first dozen contests. Burke averaged 12 points and six assists per game to help Michigan place third in the Maui Invitational, against very good competition.

The Michigan coach admits to not placing very high expectations on Burke, or any freshman, but adds that he has been more than pleasantly surprised by Burke's impact.

"What I think has been the most pleasing part of the evolution so far is that as he's come in, we're continuing to give him more and more, and he's showing no frustration about it when he makes mistakes," Beilein said. "He's allowing himself to become a better player because he's a great listener."

The only conclusion the Wolverines can draw as they surge into Big Ten play with a ton of momentum is that they might have crept into Ohio and swiped the top point guard in the state. Even with Sullinger on the same court as a high-schooler, Burke must have been an awfully sweet sounding second fiddle.

--Sophomore G Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a potent second-half scorer for the Wolverines this season, reaching double figures in output in the second half of six games, while doing so in the first half just twice. Against Duke, Hardaway went scoreless in the first half but exploded for 19 points in the second half.

--G Stu Douglass has been a steady and reliable contributor for the Wolverines in his four years in Ann Arbor. Douglass has not missed a game in his career, playing in 115 straight with his appearance against Penn State in the Big Ten opener. He is closing in on the Michigan record of 135 games played, set by Loy Vaught from 1986-90.

--G Zack Novak has returned to his natural two-guard position, due to the way sophomore F Evan Smotrycz has burst onto the scene as a potent offensive option. With Smotrycz posting three double-doubles this season, Novak has taken advantage of the more comfortable role out front and heading into Big Ten play he was averaging a productive 8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and was shooting 50 percent from the field.

BY THE NUMBERS: 41 -- Michigan had 30 or more rebounds in 10 of its first 12 games, including a season-best 41 rebounds in a win over Alabama A&M.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sometimes less is so much more for him by just letting the game come to him, that way he doesn't press. I always feel the game is at both ends. When his offense is better, his defense is better and he'll play smarter. He's one of my guys that I call 'grenade guys' -- it's like the ball is a grenade and they have to do something with it or it's going to blow up. He's handling that grenade much better now." -- Michigan coach John Beilein on the improved scoring of F Evan Smotrycz.

THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Wisconsin, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: The Badgers are strong in the backcourt with senior G Jordan Taylor providing one of the toughest physical matchups in the Big Ten. If freshman PG Trey Burke gets the assignment on Taylor, expect Burke's offense to suffer due to the demands of shadowing Taylor. Wisconsin G/F Ryan Evans benefits from all the attention Taylor demands, so Michigan's G Zack Novak will need to help on Taylor but not give Evans much room. Evans had 22 points in the Badgers' Big Ten opening win over Nebraska.

FUTURES MARKET: The Wolverines landed a real prize when they got a solid commitment from 6-foot-6 F Tre Robinson from Indiana. Not only did Michigan grab one of the top 50 high school players in the country for next year, but the Wolverines also secured the son of former Purdue All-American and NBA All Star Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. Purdue was long thought to have the wide, inside track on the younger Robinson, but he's headed to Ann Arbor where his versatility plays right into the Wolverines' approach on the perimeter.

PLAYER NOTES

--Sophomore F Jordan Morgan has been a steady force inside for the Wolverines, and he appears to be continuing that trend as the Big Ten portion of the schedule gets rolling. After leading the Wolverines with 12 points and nine rebounds in the 73-71 loss at Indiana, Morgan goes into the next stretch of games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa leading the Big Ten in shooting percentage at 66.2 percent. He was the Big Ten leader in field-goal accuracy last season at 62.7 percent.

--G Jordan Dumars left the program before the start of the season, giving up after a series of nagging knee injuries cost him nearly two years of playing time. Dumars, the son of former NBA All-Star Joe Dumars, joined the Michigan team as a walk-on after starting his career at South Florida. Dumars never played in a game at Michigan and would likely have been lodged deep in the playing rotation this season.

--G Zack Novak is a rare third-year captain at Michigan. Two years ago, Novak was just the second sophomore to be named captain. He becomes only the second Wolverine to serve in that role for three seasons.


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