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ANN ARBOR — The Michigan basketball team’s 75-67 win over 10th-ranked Iowa tipped off before a quiet, half-empty arena, with thousands of fans still gridlocked on the snow-covered roads outside the Crisler Center.
The scene befit the Wolverines’ slow-to-the-party national profile.
UM had only narrowly cracked the polls this week despite seven straight wins while, earlier Wednesday, star guard Nik Stauskas was left off the Wooden Award’s midseason list of 25 players to watch for national player-of-the-year honors.
Yet by the end of the night, the place was packed and there was Michigan refusing to let the other sneaker drop on this suddenly charmed season. There was Stauskas dribbling out the clock in the No. 21 Wolverines’ second straight win over a top-10 opponent, raising his right hand to ask an obliging crowd for more, more, more noise.
Four days after UM (14-4, 6-0) stunned Wisconsin in Madison, Stauskas scored a game-high 26 points to keep the momentum building into Saturday’s outsized showdown at third-ranked Michigan State — the league’s only other team without a conference loss. The Wolverines, cast off as NIT-bound weeks earlier, will carry an eight-game winning streak into the battle for first place.
"What a great game and atmosphere, even with the late-arriving crowd," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Boy, I felt charged up, and I know our team felt charged up by the win."
The storylines went beyond Stauskas, who continued to stake an early claim as the Big Ten’s best player.
Glenn Robinson III added 14 points, sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht had seven points and seven assists in place of flu-bound starter Derrick Walton, and Michigan held the long, skilled, and breakneck Hawkeyes (15-4, 4-2) — one of the nation’s highest-scoring teams — to their lowest points total of the season.
The Wolverines raced to an 11-point lead midway through the second half, then withstood a tension-filled stretch run. Albrecht found Robinson for a layup that pushed Michigan ahead 69-64 with 2:05 left and the hosts hung on from there.
The sophomore Stauskas, though, was again the showstopper.
A supporting player on last year’s national runner-up team, Stauskas is now tied as the Big Ten’s scoring leader (18.3 points per game) and one of the nation’s most dynamic scorers. The 6-foot-6 guard hit his first four shots Wednesday and was 8-of-14 from the field, slashing at will to the basket while also hitting four 3-pointers.
Though 6-9 Iowa forward Aaron White nudged him around inside, scoring many of his 17 points while defended by Stauskas, the matchup was more lopsided on the other end.
"Offensively, I feel like there’s just very few people that can stay in front of me right now," Stauskas said. "My confidence has been on another level since the beginning of the season."
Said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery: "The amazing thing about him has been his consistency all year. [Stauskas] is the one guy everyone marks, yet he’s still able to get shots out of the offense, and get shots on his own."
It’s the sort of game that just may play well at the next level. Last week, his father, Paul Stauskas suggested Nik may soon be bound for the NBA.
“He knows all he has to do is keep his nose to the grindstone for another couple of months, and there’s a really good possibility he might be able to go pro," Paul Stauskas told Sports Illustrated. "He’s working really hard to achieve that.”
Late Wednesday, the younger Stauskas laughed when asked about the prospect.
"I apologize for my father’s comments," he said. "He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I haven’t really thought anything about that."
For now, Stauskas and Michigan are enjoying a ride few could have foreseen.
"This was a big game for us," Stauskas said. "I feel like this team is playing some great basketball right now."