Midwest Region: Improved Stauskas looks to prove himself in NCAA Tournament

Three points on 1-of-7 shooting. Those were Michigan guard Nik Stauskas’ Final Four stats when he walked off the floor after his team’s defeat in the 2013 national championship game.

The Wolverines had been just a few plays away from achieving their ultimate goal of a national title, trailing No. 1 seed Louisville by only four points in the final minute. With a little more production from Stauskas or another teammate, an 82-76 loss could have turned into a victory.

“Not only losing in the championship game, but just the fact that I didn’t play well personally those two games,” Stauskas said Thursday. “It motivated me.”

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AP Photo | Morry Gash

Stauskas, a sophomore, is now back to prove his worth as individual as he leads his team’s charge back to the Final Four. The 2nd-seeded Wolverines face No. 11 seed Tennessee on Friday in the Midwest Region’s Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Stauskas has budded into a high-level NBA prospect.

Stauskas was not a main player on last year’s team. With NBA prospects Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the lead, Stauskas earned a role as a 3-point specialist. But both Burke and Hardaway bolted for the Association at the season’s end, and a large part of the production they left behind fell on Stauskas’ shoulders.

To fill the void left by his former teammates, Stauskas had to become more than just a spot-up shooter.

“I think the biggest adjustments I made were in the weight room,” Stauskas said. “Just trying to put on some size and getting more explosive. And I think that’s helped me throughout the year, just being more confident, going to the basket and finishing over bigger defenders.”

This season, 50.0% of Stauskas field-goal makes have come from 2-point range compared to 19.5% last season. He’s also improved as a distributor, averaging 3.3 assists per game with a 1.79 to 1 assist-turnover ratio. And he hasn’t lost his 3-point touch. In fact, he’s gotten better from beyond the arc, draining triples at a 45.1% clip after converting 44.0% last year.

“Playing alongside Tim Hardaway and Trey Burke, he didn’t have the same opportunities he had this year,” head coach John Beilein said Thursday. “And we would have been crazy to say, ‘Alright, Nik’s our guy.’ Our guys were Tim Hardaway and Trey Burke last year. When both of them went pro, we have 80 more minutes, we have 25 more shots a game. Who’s going to get those? And we gotta have guys who are going to be leaders and defenders. Who’s going to do that? [Nik] spent his summer getting ready for this opportunity, and when given that opportunity he’s made the most of it.”

Although Stauskas struggled in the Final Four and the opening rounds of last year’s NCAA Tournament, in between he starred at the South Regional. He cashed in 11 points during Michigan’s Sweet 16 win against Kansas. Two nights later, his 22 points and 6-of-6 3-point shooting led the Wolverines’ blowout of Florida in the Elite Eight.

But those meager three points on 1-of-7 shooting in two Final Four games still sting.

“It motivated me going into the summer,” Stauskas said. “Just gave me a little bit extra motivation to work harder on the court and in the weight room. So all throughout that summer I kind of had a bad taste in my mouth just from those last two games and it kept me going.”

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