NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The Big Ten’s player of the year — the offensive star of the league’s regular-season champion — insists his team still isn’t getting that much recognition.
“I don’t think it’s disrespect, I just think sometimes we may be just flying under the radar,” Michigan’s Nik Stauskas said. “We’re perfectly fine with that.”
Just to recap: Michigan played in the championship game of last year’s NCAA tournament and may have a shot at a No. 1 seed this season. The Wolverines won the Big Ten by three games and are now ranked eighth in the country.
So Michigan can expect plenty of attention at this week’s Big Ten tournament — but Stauskas and his teammates are always on the lookout for extra motivation.
“I don’t think we’re the favorite to win this tournament,” said Stauskas, a sophomore guard. “I don’t think anyone really thinks we’re going to win, so we still have a chip on our shoulder.”
The Wolverines actually were pretty well regarded at the beginning of the season, with Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary returning from last year’s Final Four run. But a shaky start and McGary’s back injury left Michigan facing all sorts of uncertainty.
The Wolverines responded impressively, beating Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State on the road and leaving the rest of the rugged Big Ten behind. It was Michigan’s first outright conference title since 1986 — and this is the team’s first time entering the league tournament as the top seed.
Michigan (23-7) takes on Illinois (19-13) in the quarterfinals Friday.
Wolverines coach John Beilein says he’s not concerned at all about his team’s NCAA tournament seed. Michigan was a No. 4 seed last year and looks headed for an even better spot this time.
Beilein worries instead about how the Wolverines can keep improving late in the season. Like last year, Michigan is an offensive juggernaut, but the Wolverines are not one of the nation’s top teams defensively.
“We have gotten better, but obviously, we’re not good enough to shut people down enough,” Beilein said. “We better play well offensively, or we’ll have a tough time winning.”
Of course, the Wolverines are almost impossible to beat if they shoot like they did last week against Illinois. Michigan went 16 of 23 from 3-point range against the Illini and won 84-53.
The Wolverines won the inaugural Big Ten tournament in 1998, but they haven’t reached the title game since. When Michigan won a share of the conference title in 2012, it was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Wolverines slipped past Minnesota in overtime before being blown out by Ohio State in the semifinals.
Perhaps Michigan was worn out by that point. The Wolverines dropped their NCAA tournament opener as well.
“We played only about six guys that whole year,” Beilein said. “We had better minute distribution this year.”
The 2014 team has shown decent depth in McGary’s absence, and the injured big man said last weekend he’s now able to run. But he hasn’t played since December, and Beilein certainly isn’t dropping any hints about a possible return.
“I don’t let him do anything in practice that involves what we do, other than just rebound foul shots or something like that,” the coach said.
Stauskas, meanwhile, has become Michigan’s top performer offensively, averaging 17.4 points per game and shooting 46 percent from 3-point range. He was named Big Ten player of the year by both the coaches and media.
“I worked the whole offseason to put myself in this position to win that award,” Stauskas said. “It means a lot, and I’m just super excited right now.”
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