Nik Stauskas has to play at a high level for Michigan to be a contender.
Prior to the start of its 2013-14 campaign, the Michigan basketball team was expected to finish third in the Big Ten Conference. Now, with Mitch McGary facing back surgery and an ankle injury hobbling Glenn Robinson III, the Wolverines' conference title hopes are beginning to fade away.
There is still some hope for Michigan, though. As long as the Wolverines can execute the following five keys, they will be in the hunt until the very end.
However, the Maize and Blue cannot afford any further injuries, as their road to the Big Ten title is already going to be difficult enough without McGary. If Robinson misses significant time, or Jon Horford were to suffer an injury again, Michigan will have no chance to stay in contention.
Glenn Robinson III has to continue playing like a lottery pick for Michigan to win the Big Ten.
With Mitch McGary sidelined for the foreseeable future, Michigan will have to lean heavily on its two remaining stars in order to win the Big Ten. If Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas fail to play like the highly touted NBA draft prospects they are, the Wolverines' league title hopes are very bleak.
As Stauskas proved in Thursday night's win over Minnesota, he does not always need to score in bunches to be productive. The sophomore shooting guard dished out seven assists to overcome a 3-of-7 shooting performance. Getting to the charity stripe on eight occasions and making seven of those attempts allowed Stauskas to finish with 14 points.
Those kind of all-around performances are why Stauskas' stock is on the rise, according to Brendan F. Quinn of Mlive.com.
Following a sluggish start to the 2013-14 campaign, Robinson is finally looking like the NBA draft lottery pick some thought he could be, per Nick Baumgardner of Mlive.com.
In the four games leading up to Michigan's conference-opener, the 6'6", 220-pound Robinson averaged 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and shot 66.7 percent from the field. A slight dip in those numbers would only be natural, but the Wolverines need Robinson to be a big-time performer every night.
Unfortunately, health is once again an issue for the sophomore small forward. Robinson suffered an ankle injury against the Golden Gophers and his status is once again up in the air.
Without him, Michigan's Big Ten title hopes are doomed.
Jon Horford has to be a factor in the post for Michigan to win the Big Ten.
The two players who may very well wind up determining whether or not Michigan is a legitimate Big Ten contender are big men Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan. Neither has the dynamic athleticism that Mitch McGary brought to the position and neither is a big-time scorer with the two averaging a combined 7.5 points per game.
Thankfully, the Wolverines do not need them to carry the scoring load. Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and the rest of the Michigan guards can do that.
Michigan simply needs its duo of veteran bigs to be efficient on offense and not be a hindrance in the post on defense. Finishing dump-offs from Stauskas and Co. near the basket are going to be necessities for Horford and Morgan as well.
It appears as though Horford is on the right track. The Grand Ledge, Mich., product has scored 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds in Michigan's last two games.
Morgan was limited to just 31 minutes against Holy Cross and Minnesota. However, he still made the most of his minutes and cashed in on 4-of-5 attempts, did not commit a turnover and reeled in seven boards.
The Wolverines simply need efficient minutes from their two bigs. Anything less than that and teams will begin to dominate the paint, which is a recipe for disaster in the Big Ten title race.
Zak Irvin is heating up at the right time for Michigan.
While Michigan may be short on big men, it has plenty of guards capable of going off on any given night. Freshman Zak Irvin is one of the brightest young players in that personnel group and finally looks comfortable in the Wolverines offense.
Irvin hit a low when he was thrust into major minutes against Charlotte. After Glenn Robinson III went down with a back injury and never returned, his replacement went 3-of-14 from the field. However, in the following game against Coppin State, everything came together for the former 5-star prospect.
Irvin sank 6-of-10 three-pointers and 9-of-13 overall from the floor, which appeared to be the confidence boost he needed. Since his rocky outing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title game, Irvin has shot 51.3 percent from beyond the arc. That has translated to four double-digit scoring efforts in seven games.
With Nik Stauskas driving the line more often and creating more chances for others this season, Irvin's perimeter shooting is needed more than ever.
Michigan has been in dire need of a lift off the bench this season and it appears to have found one in Irvin, as long as he can keep it up through March.
Winning big games at home is a critical aspect of winning the Big Ten title.
With the exception of Ohio State, each of the four ranked teams in the Big Ten must travel to Ann Arbor. In order for Michigan to have a legitimate shot at winning its second conference crown in three seasons, it must win all of those games.
The most pivotal stretch of contests will be from Feb. 8-23. That could very well be when the Wolverines' Big Ten fate will be decided.
During that span, Michigan will travel to Iowa and Ohio State, followed by a pair of home tilts with Wisconsin and Michigan State. Winning both games in the Crisler Center and stealing one of those road contests is a must for the Wolverines.
Walking out of Madison, Wis., or East Lansing, Mich., with an upset win in January, however, seems like a long shot for Michigan.
It goes without saying that Michigan has to dispatch of the lesser teams in the Big Ten. Having a letdown on a night where victory should be certain, such as against Penn State last season, would likely doom the Wolverines.
Michigan's performance against the ranked foes in the league will determine where it finishes in its championship chase.
Sometimes it is hard to remember how young the Wolverines are.
It is the little things that separate championship teams from everyone else, and it remains to be seen whether or not Michigan can take care of those little things on a nightly basis.
Against Minnesota, a few tiny mistakes nearly cost the Wolverines a critical road victory. Nik Stauskas committed a silly foul on a desperation three-pointer in the closing 10 seconds while Derrick Walton, Jon Horford and Stauskas combined to miss four free throws in the final 36 seconds of regulation.
A similar finish in a pivotal contest late in Big Ten play could result in a loss Michigan cannot afford.
Is it possible that the Wolverines' most recent dramatic finish was an aberration? Absolutely. Just do not be surprised if it happens again, given the fact that Michigan's roster is composed of 13 underclassmen.