When Michigan star big man Mitch McGary shut himself down and elected to have back surgery in late December, it was easy to put Michigan in the also-ran category of the Big Ten.
Even with McGary, the Wolverines were 6-4 and destined for the bubble.
Five weeks later, the narrative has completely changed in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have won seven straight, are off to a perfect 5-0 start in the Big Ten after a signature win at Wisconsin on Saturday and have reentered the Top 25.
The timing of McGary going out just so happened to occur as John Beilein's reinvention of his offense took off. Maybe it's a coincidence—maybe it's not—but what's become clear is that McGary was probably not going to be the key to this team's success and his fill-ins (Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan) aren't as big a drop-off as one might believe.
"Now there's just consistency and people have been in their roles now for over a month," Beilein said on Monday during the Big Ten conference call. "It's been five weeks since he played a game, so we've had five weeks to just get a rhythm about who's playing, where they're playing and how they're playing."
Going into the season, McGary figured to be one of the most consistent pieces for the Wolverines. The key to Michigan's season, the thought had been, was going to be how freshman point guard Derrick Walton would assume the responsibilities of Trey Burke.
Almost everything ran through Burke a year ago, and the point guard had been key to Michigan's success for three straight seasons with Darius Morris as a sophomore in 2010-11 carrying a heavy load as well.
Instead of putting all that pressure on Walton, Beilein has spread the wealth when it comes to play-making responsibilities, and in the process, the Wolverines have become tougher to guard.
Last season, opposing coaches knew they were going to need to figure out how to contain Burke and they also had to game-plan for Tim Hardaway Jr. Almost everything was initiated and created by those two.
This season, defenses have to be ready for Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Walton, who are all capable playing multiple roles in the offense that include creator, driver and shooter.
"We have multiple pick-and-roll men, probably more than we've ever had," Beilein said. "We usually have one or two, and we have four or five right now and that really has been a good change for us. It takes the ball out of the point guard's hands a little more than normal."
This isn't just coach-speak. The numbers show how much Michigan has shared responsibility as far as who is the main handler in pick-and-roll offense as opposed to last season.
|Michigan Pick-and-Roll Ball Handlers (2012-13 vs. 2013-14)|
|P&R Handler (12-13)||% of time|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||19.3|
|P&R Handler (13-14)||% of time|
|Derrick Walton Jr.||15.6|
|Glenn Robinson III||9.5|
|Synergy Sports Technology|
As the third man in the play-making pecking order, Walton has continued to get more comfortable in the offense, and Beilein has been able to give him more responsibility at his own pace.
"There's many times he just provides space for us," Beilein said. "If you look at his three-point shooting numbers, it's really good. They cannot lay off of him, so sometimes he's just standing in the corner. We want him to be there, so he's a stationary target we can hit as we read what we call the fifth defender. The guy furthest away from the ball has to decide whether he's going to help on the pick-and-roll or stay with Derrick."
The corner was a spot that was usually reserved for Robinson or Stauskas last season. It's a low-responsibility, high-reward position because you're either a decoy or a spot-up shooter who gets open looks. That's why Robinson was such a highly efficient scorer in limited opportunities as a freshman.
That spot is still extremely important because Michigan gets a higher percentage of its shots from spot-ups (29.4 percent of attempts, according to Synergy Sports Technology's numbers) than any other play type.
On Saturday at Wisconsin, Walton was barely involved in the offense (two points on three shots), but he was still a key presence.
As Beilein said, his ability as a three-point shooter—he's a solid 36.2 percent—helps space the floor.
And when the fifth defender decides to help off Walton, he's not just a candidate to hit the spot-up jumper. He also gives Michigan another option as a driver.
That's what he did in the sequence below when LeVert found him open in the corner. Walton penetrated and pitched it back out to LeVert for three.
Michigan's recent run is not just Walton getting more comfortable in his skin. The same has happened for Robinson, Stauskas, LeVert and freshman Zak Irvin.
Robinson is capitalizing on more opportunities, averaging 15.1 points over the last seven games with an effective field goal percentage of 60.8 percent.
Stauskas has embraced his role as the go-to man. He ended Wisconsin's comeback bid when Beilein gave him the ball in an iso play and he buried a step-back three that was so cold-blooded it brought back memories of Burke.
LeVert has gone from energy bench guy last season to a reliable scorer (12.0 points per game) and facilitator (2.9 assists per game, which is second on the team). And Irvin has become a dangerous bench scorer who occasionally erupts—he made five threes in the Big Ten opener at Minnesota.
I'm not ready to declare that the Wolverines are capable of going on another Final Four run, but they are closer to the equal of last year's squad than you'd think. For instance, Michigan's adjusted offensive efficiency is 120.3, which is identical to last year's team, according to KenPom.com.
The schedule has helped, as Michigan didn't have to face any of the Big Ten's elite until Wisconsin, and that was a Wisconsin team that was a bit shaken coming off a loss to Indiana and not playing great on the defensive end.
The Wolverines will really be tested this week with two Top 10 matchups against No. 10 Iowa at home on Wednesday and at No. 3 Michigan State on Saturday.
If you had looked forward a month ago after McGary went out, this week's games would likely have been thought to be automatic losses. Instead, Beilein has a team that can score with anybody.
Win one of two this week, and the Wolverines will be in prime position to contend for a Big Ten title. That's a reality that only seemed possible this year if (and only if) McGary continued his rise to superstardom.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.
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