Michigan Basketball: 5 Burning Questions for Remainder of 2013-14 Season
Life is good for the Michigan basketball program. The Wolverines have bounced back from a rocky nonconference slate and are sitting atop the Big Ten Conference standings with a 9-1 record in league play. Even with all the positives, though, there are still some burning questions the Maize and Blue have to answer down the closing stretch of the 2013-14 season.
Four key games remain on the Big Ten schedule, and each will play a significant role in how the conference standings shake out come March.
The answers to the following five questions will determine where the Wolverines finish among their league peers and how deep of a run they make in the NCAA tournament.
Can the Wolverines Keep Winning on the Road?
Winning games on the road, particularly against the other contenders, is a requirement for capturing a Big Ten title. Every league champion since 2006-07 has finished with a record of 8-1, 7-1 or 7-2 in road games. Only one champ since 2003-04 has finished with three losses away from home in league play.
Currently, Michigan is 4-1 on the road in Big Ten action. Two of those wins came at Wisconsin and Michigan State. While the former is merely battling to stay in the title race, beating the latter in East Lansing should give the Wolverines a major advantage in the Big Ten standings come season's end.
There are still four major hurdles left to clear, though. Upcoming trips to Iowa and Ohio State will undoubtedly be the toughest to get over. Visits to Purdue and Illinois should definitely not be overlooked.
Michigan has proven it can win marquee games away from the Crisler Center, but it still has work left to do. The Wolverines' record in those four remaining road contests will likely determine whether or not they win their second Big Ten title in the past three years.
Will Zak Irvin Heat Up at the Right Time?
It is clear Zak Irvin can shoot the three. What is still a major question mark is how consistent the freshman shooting guard will be down the closing stretch of Big Ten play and entering the NCAA tournament.
The Fishers, Ind. product is draining three-pointers at a 40.9 percent clip, but his perimeter shot is usually feast or famine. For example, Irvin went 5-of-8 from beyond the arc in a win over Minnesota. Over the course of the next six games, he converted just four of 14 long-range attempts.
Most recently, Irvin came back around by sinking four treys in a rout of Nebraska. The 6'6", 200-pounder also made four threes in a victory over Stanford and six in a blowout of Coppin State earlier this season.
If he can stay hot for the next four games and in the early goings of March Madness, Michigan can beat anyone in the country. The only question is, will the shots be falling when the Wolverines need them most. All of us will just have to wait and see.
Which Glenn Robinson III Will Show Up in Big Games?
In order for Michigan to reach its greatest potential, Glenn Robinson III must play at a high level and be efficient. Against ranked teams this season, the sophomore small forward has been erratic.
Against then-No. 1 Arizona and then-No. 3 Wisconsin, Robinson went 14-of-17 from the field and scored 34 points.
However, matchups with No. 16 Iowa State, No. 17 Iowa and No. 9 Michigan State brought much different results. The 6'6", 220-pounder combined to make just 12 of 37 shots, despite the fact he averaged 11.7 points in those contests. With a healthy Adreian Payne for Michigan State, Robinson cannot afford another inefficient performance.
He certainly has no problem dominating lesser competition. Wednesday night against Nebraska, Robinson drained eight of 14 attempts en route to his third 20-point performance of the season.
Michigan does not need him to be its leading scorer. It simply needs Robinson to be efficient, aggressive and not settle for contested jump shots. Whether or not he does that will determine where the Wolverines finish in the Big Ten standings and the NCAA tournament.
Will Nik Stauskas Be Named Big Ten Conference Player of the Year?
At the moment, there are two clear-cut contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year: Nik Stauskas and Gary Harris. The latter has a slight edge over the former, but the race is far from over, and there are plenty of opportunities for one to overtake the other.
Through 10 conference games, Stauskas is averaging 16.4 points, 4.5 assists per contest and is shooting 49 percent. On the other hand, Harris is scoring 18.2 points, dishing out 2.4 helpers, making 44.7 percent of his attempts and coming away with 2.7 steals.
The final stat is what breaks the tie right now. Harris impacts the game at the defensive end more than Stauskas, which has to be taken into account.
If the Canadian shooting guard can catch fire and go on a scoring tear for the rest of the month, he could very well be named the Big Ten's best overall player.
Expect a banner year for the Wolverines as long as he is in the conversation with Harris.
Can Michigan Beat a Healthy Michigan State?
Yes, Michigan has taken five of the last seven games against Michigan State, including a matchup at the Breslin Center earlier this season. However, this does not mean the Wolverines could beat a healthy group of Spartans. On Feb. 23, everyone should get a chance to find out if the Maize and Blue can accomplish that task.
Per Sports Illustrated's Scooby Axson, Keith Appling's status is up in the air, but he could get back to full strength by the time the Spartans head to Ann Arbor. Adreian Payne returned to the lineup against Penn State.
Payne, who is averaging 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, could make all the difference Michigan State needs to take down Michigan. The first time around, the Spartans only got 17 points from their forwards and still came within five points of taking down the Wolverines.
This rematch could wind up being the game that decides who the 2013-14 Big Ten champion will be. Is Michigan up to the challenge? It is 16 days and counting until we find out.