To say that Nik Stauskas has taken his game to another level would be an understatement. The 6-6, 205 lb. guard leads the Big Ten in overall scoring average (18.5 ppg) and is averaging a slightly better 19.0 ppg in league play. That’s despite being at the top of the scouting report for every team the Wolverines have faced en route to an unblemished conference record.
“My confidence has been on another level since the beginning of the season,” said Stauskas. “But I think with the games I have been playing, the success that we have been having recently, that confidence is growing and growing.”
That confidence did flatten a bit a few weeks back, even if just for a moment. The offensive-minded sophomore was stymied at every turn in Michigan’s road match-up with Duke Blue. In one of his first experiences being that “top of scouting report” player, Stauskas had one of the worst outings of his career. He attempted only two shots and scored a season low four points in 34 minutes.
“I think that Duke game was a big game for me because they kind of shut me down and they just paid a lot of attention to me on and off the ball,” Stauskas stated. ”I think that game by itself was a really big learning experience for me and I think I have done a pretty good job after that of adjusting to how teams play me.”
Fast forward to the present and Stauskas has scored over 20 points in three consecutive contests. That’s not quite as long as the five game streak that the Blue Devils snapped, but it might be more impressive because it has come in the thick of league play versus teams gearing to stop him specifically. The Hawkeyes certainly tried to slow him down with their size, but his 26 point outburst is proof positive that those attempts were futile.
“Especially in the first half I just felt like Aaron White was matched up with me and a lot of times I just felt like he wasn’t laterally quick enough to stay in front of me,” Stauskas said matter-of-factly. “I was just trying to doing everything I could just to make moves to get to the basket and you know, if he played off of me, I got some step in threes so I was just trying to be aggressive.”
“I feel like there are just very few people who can stay in front of me right now when I am aggressive, so I just try to attack them.”
Today’s match-up with arch-rival Michigan State is a clash of the last two undefeated teams in conference play and the two current favorites for Big Ten player of the year (Stauskas and Gary Harris). There were a lot of storylines heading into last year’s game also. Unfortunately for Michigan none of them proved to be that compelling once the ball actually tipped, as the Spartans blew out the Maize & Blue 72-52.
“They punked us,” Stauskas conceded. “They came out from the very start and they were a lot more aggressive than we were. They were getting every loose ball, every rebound. They were throwing the ball in the post and we couldn’t do anything about it. So I think toughness is going to be key for us come this Saturday.”
One of the defining characteristics for this year’s Michigan team is the ability to learn from negative experiences. Whether it’s on an individual level (Stauskas’s play since the Duke game) or collectively (last year’s Penn State loss to this year’s Penn State win and last year’s road loss at Wisconsin to this year’s road win at Wisconsin), this team seems to have a penchant for growing from its adversity. That’s why the odds of this year’s team being intimidated before the tip in East Lansing are pretty low.
“I wouldn’t say revenge (is the mindset), but we are definitely looking forward to that game and it is going to be a great challenge,” said Stauskas. “Michigan State is a great team and I am sure we are going to have a lot of fun.”
That’ll definitely be true if Stauskas stays on his scoring tear. At the same time he knows his effort today won’t be defined just by the points he puts on the board. He needs to be solid in the other aspects of the game also… especially defensively.
“Definitely, I understand I’m not the best defender in the world,” he admitted. “Teams are going to attack me. That is exactly what teams used to do to me last year. They just use guys four down, have the guy at the top the key and just go at me. I understand that teams are going to that and I have got to be prepared.”
He’s also prepared to give an emotional lift to his teammates with a little emotion of his own if he feels they need it. So don’t be surprised if a few of his “three signs” and some yelling here and there comes from #11.
“Sometimes I think that if we are a little sluggish I try to pump us up a little bit get the crowd going,” he explained. ”We feed off that kind of stuff. I think (opposing fans) hated whenever I did this stuff, but it really doesn’t bother me too much if people hate me or love me. It’s all good.”