Nik Stauskas is on fire and so are the Wolverines.
Michigan basketball fans should enjoy the show Nik Stauskas continues to put on, because it could be on its way out of Ann Arbor come April. With every pull-up jumper, ankle-breaking crossover and nifty pass through traffic, the Canadian product continues to force his way into the Wooden Award conversation.
The top 25 candidates for the Wooden Award were released this week. Somehow, Stauskas' name did not appear on the list. Chad Ford, ESPN's NBA draft guru, also left the sophomore shooting guard out of his latest mock draft.
Both of those lists need to be revised.
Thanks to the new and improved version of Stauskas, a team that lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA draft, and has been without preseason All-American Mitch McGary for all but eight games, is tied for first place in the Big Ten Conference.
The No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes were the latest opponent to feel the 6'6", 205-pounder's wrath on Wednesday night. Stauskas drained shot after shot en route to a 26-point performance, which matched his career-high and led the Wolverines to their second straight victory over a team ranked inside the top 10. He also finished with five rebounds and five assists.
Several college basketball analysts took notice:
I mean seriously, Stauskas. Wow— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) January 23, 2014
Put him on the Wooden Watch ..NOW!!— Dan Dakich (@dandakich) January 23, 2014
Forget "should be on the Wooden Award list", Nik Stauskas is a lottery pick.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) January 23, 2014
This isn't anything new for Stauskas. He has been Michigan's best player for the entire season and is the main reason why they are off to a 6-0 start in league play.
His ability to create shots off the dribble paired with a lightning-quick release makes him one of the toughest covers in the entire country.
"Any time a guy steps back like that, you try to cover ground like that with that quick a release?" Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said after its 77-70 loss last Saturday, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive. "That step-back's so fast and that release is so fast, you're not going to (defend it). He's quick. He's like a cat."
Stauskas has nine games with at least 20 points this season. Three of those huge performances came against teams ranked No. 16 or higher in the national polls. Additionally, he leads the Big Ten in scoring with 18.5 points per game.
Three-point shooting is still one of Stauskas' greatest assets, but it is no longer his primary source of production. He still knocks down shots from beyond the arc at a 44 percent clip. However, a significantly better handle has led to him becoming a much more complete player.
Distributing and opening up shots for others have arguably been Stauskas' most important contribution to the Wolverines.
Freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. and reserve Spike Albrecht both have deficiencies and were unable to shoulder the responsibility of being a go-to creator. Stauskas has made that irrelevant by averaging a team-high 3.8 assists per contest, which has helped their respective development processes.
Don't just take my word for it, though. See for yourself.
He also did this to Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes after the Wolverines had 15-point lead cut to just one with less than a minute remaining in regulation.
None of this comes as a surprise to head coach John Beilein, who praised Stauskas in a post-game press conference, per Joe Stapleton of UMHoops.
I’ve watched him two years in practice. I watch him every day, and he just has that ability right now that’s very rare to get his own shot, to get to the rim, to make foul shots, to draw fouls. I don’t know if I ever get surprised too much. I love his growth. You know what I am surprised by? For a shooter and a scorer, he’s really embraced defense.
All that said, there is still plenty of basketball left to played and several marquee matchups Stauskas must shine in before the end of the 2013-14 campaign. One of those includes a battle with archrival No. 3 Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday.
How well Stauskas performs in Michigan's toughest games down the stretch will determine whether or not he can rise to the top of a deep field of candidates for the nation's most coveted individual award.
For now, though, there is no question he belongs in the conversation.
Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam