ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Last season, Michigan's basketball team belonged to Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
At best, the players around them were complementary pieces. The common criticism coming into this season was that the Wolverines had a bunch of niche players returning, but niche players don't make a team, and certainly not one that could contend for a Big Ten title.
"We heard it and all throughout the summer that's what motivated us all to work hard," sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said. "We knew we were losing that talent and that people thought we couldn't do it. We're just trying to work as hard as we can and get better every day."
So the Wolverines spent the summer working on turning niche parts into a more complete and cohesive unit.
Stauskas spent the summer in Ann Arbor with sophomore guard Caris LeVert. He added 16 pounds while LeVert added 27. LeVert improved his ballhandling skills, knowing he might have to take minutes at the point while Stauskas became more of a threat driving to the basket. Glenn Robinson III worked on his midrange jumper and becoming a better defender.
As the season began, John Beilein's group somehow looked more well-rounded than last season's unit. He, like his team, had spent the summer preparing -- not how to replace two first-round NBA draft picks, including a Wooden Award winner, but in determining what kind of opportunities there were for the names on his roster.
"The minutes were there to be had," said Beilein, whose team is on an eight-game winning streak and is looking for its third top-10 win on Saturday against No. 3 Michigan State. "It has been great for them. It's what we do as coaches -- don't worry about what you don't have, worry about what you have."
But what, exactly, Michigan had was a big question mark.
It was a question that took on even greater import when Michigan announced center Mitch McGary needed back surgery and would miss the rest of the season. The Wolverines were 7-4 at the time and needed senior Jordan Morgan and junior Jon Horford to at least assume McGary's minutes, if not his production. Suddenly, the big picture Beilein spoke of seemed even more blurry.
Robinson III certainly had athleticism, but his midrange game and ballhandling left something to be desired. Stauskas could shoot the ball, but if defenders took that away, his game was limited. LeVert had potential but he seemed too thin to compete in Division I, let alone the Big Ten. Could any of those players truly pose the threat that Hardaway Jr. did at his best? Could even a combination of two of them do that?
And would it be Spike Albrecht or freshman point guard Derrick Walton who'd provide the assists and control of the game that Burke did? Was there any way to truly have as efficient a team after losing a Wooden Award-winning point guard?
"We like the talent on this team," Beilein said. "We said, 'Isn't this great? They're going to have opportunities to get more shots, to do more things, to just be a bigger part of both our offense and our defense.'"
The early returns have been positive. Michigan is averaging fewer turnovers per game this season (9.2) than at the same time last season (9.7) and the Wolverines are close to last season's assist per game mark (15.9 last season; 15.6 this season).