Every freshman goes through it, and Michigan’s five aren’t exempt.
Nearly every newcomer hits the proverbial “wall” in one way or another because at some point in the season, the games start to drag, the practices take a toll, the legs start to fade and the stamina begins to wane. High school seasons simply aren’t as long and arduous.
But the difference between most freshmen and those playing on the No. 7-ranked Wolverines is that most programs grant their incoming class an easier transition to college basketball.
Most freshmen aren’t exposed to a No. 1 ranking and thrust into the spotlight of college basketball’s best conference. They’re not used to nationally televised games and media inquiries probing every aspect of their lives. It’s why the freshmen on Michigan’s team have had to overcome a physical wall equally as cumbersome as the mental one.
Heralded freshman Glenn Robinson III has started every game this season, playing 81.1 percent of all minutes, while shooting guard Nik Stauskas has started the last 20 and been on the floor for 78.8 percent of the time, via Ken Pomeroy. No other Big Ten team has even one freshman playing anywhere near that percentage of time.
Forward Mitch McGary has recently seen his playing time increase due to injuries, but in terms of stamina, the relentless big man should have plenty left in the tank for the postseason, having averaged under 20 minutes a game. Backup guards Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht have also seen some action on the court, but neither plays a substantial role unless fouls become an issue.
Considering that lack of depth is one of Michigan’s primary weaknesses, it makes sense that John Beilein would have to ride his impressive freshman class.
But how many of them have actually hit that wall and can the Wolverines sustain this level of play while leaning so heavily on first-year guys?
Numbers-wise, their two most productive freshmen, Robinson III and Stauskas, have seen a recent dip. Robinson averaged 12.1 points per game but has managed just 7.8 over his last five games. The only reason it’s that high is because of a 21-point, 10-rebound effort in the win over Penn State last Sunday which may have jump-started his season again.
Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press reported Beilein's suspicions as to why Robinson has been struggling:
As for Stauskas, the blistering shooter’s “drought” seems to have extended all the way back to when the Wolverines lost their first game of the year, a 56-53 setback on the road against the Buckeyes. It was the first and only game all season that Stauskas didn’t hit a three-pointer.
Coming into the game, Stauskas was shooting 52 percent (46-of-88) from outside, but since the loss, the Ontario native is knocking down 37 percent (17-of-46) of his threes, a decent number but one that is certainly reflective of tired legs.
It’s no coincidence that their “wall” coincided with the most difficult portion of the schedule either. Michigan has lost three of its last five games—all to teams currently slotted one through 3 in the Big Ten standings.
So how to break through?
For GRIII, the Penn State game may have been a springboard. He’s as athletic as any freshman in the country and thrives in transition. For him, the key to staying in the game is to keep moving and cutting. He’s not a guy who can create his own shot off the dribble, but playing off of penetrators like Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., Robinson can thrive and stay involved off the ball.
Watch as he takes advantage of numerous backdoor cuts in the win over Penn State.
He also needs to forget about shooting three-pointers. The Wolverines have a ton of perimeter threats but few who have the offensive rebounding capability of Robinson III. He’s better suited for playing around the rim because he’s an excellent leaper and an adequate free-throw shooter (69 percent).
Like most prolific shooters, Stauskas’ confidence is his biggest asset. But confidence can also lead to stubbornness.
Coaches may say Stauskas needs to shoot himself out of his slump, as most efficient three-point shooters do. However, Stauskas clearly isn’t used to this type of workload. His best bet is to drive. Most people don’t think of him as a slasher, but the 6’6’’ freshman is capable of putting the ball on the floor with surprising quickness. If he can get to the rim and get fouled, he’s an 84 percent free-throw shooter.
The Wolverines should benefit from a softer portion of the schedule to end the season, which may afford Beilein time to rest his freshman workhorses, and if nothing else, string a few wins together. More importantly is that Michigan's schedule has gotten less condensed. Beginning with last Sunday's game, the Wolverines had a stretch of 10 days with just two games (Illinois, Penn State again).
It’s around this time of the year that experience begins to manifest itself within a team’s play. Burke and Hardaway Jr. were both battle-tested in last year’s shocking opening-round loss to Ohio in the NCAA tournament. It’s not the freshmen’s responsibility to emerge this time of the year.
But given how different this season has gone for Michigan’s surprising first-year guys, don’t be shocked if one of them does.