Hardaway takes two again and again

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- John Beilein looked at his star guard, saw what was going on and, for a brief minute early in the first half Thursday night, pulled him from the game.

Don't settle for 3-pointers, the coach said. Tim Hardaway Jr. has immense talent and can beat most of the players he faces to the rim. Plus, in Beilein's offense, a backdoor cut is a friendly one, so why not use it?

This had been a major issue for the sophomore last season.

So when Beilein saw three early Hardaway 3-pointers miss during Michigan's 71-53 win over Penn State in the Wolverines' Big Ten opener, he wanted to remind him again.

Cut. Slash. Drive.

"Coach Beilein said a runaway shot is way harder than a shot when you're walking in and driving to the paint," Hardaway said. "Collapsing the defense and you're wide open. I just tried to get that in my head and make it easier for my teammates to find me."

Michigan did, over and over again.

Hardaway had a season-high 26 points against Penn State, picking up where he left off at the end of last Big Ten season, when he scored in double-digits in the final 14 regular season and conference tournament games.

And when he started feeling a stretch like this coming, when one shot and then two and then three fell, he began calling for the ball.

"Ball. Ball. Ball," he'd say.

It meant he was open.

That freshman guard Trey Burke or sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz or senior guard Zack Novak needed to find him.

He scored 10 straight at one point -- the last four points of the first half and first six of the second half -- to break the game open and essentially say "Yep, I'm back."

"He's the player to go to," Burke said. "That's who you got to hit each and every session down the court. Until he misses, you have to continue to get him the ball, continue to feed him in comfortable spots."

For Hardaway, it doesn't get much more comfortable than cutting toward the basket. Once he gets the ball there, he becomes almost impossible to stop.

Consider this: Hardaway missed seven shots. He took 18. Six of those misses were 3-pointers.

"That was my point in the locker room," Beilein said. "'Tim, I love your game. You know why? You went 1-for-7 from 3 and you still had 26 points. You took the ball to the basket. You posted up. You did some of the things we've been working on.'"

That quote is imperative in processing his evolution. Last season, it was a constant preach -- he could have recorded it on an mp3, put it in Hardaway's iPod and hit play over and over again.

Now, it is more of a casual reminder, not that Hardaway needs it. He already knew what was there, already knew he had to drive more.

So he did and not surprisingly, it worked.

This Hardaway, the one that showed up Thursday, is the one Michigan almost expects to see now. Something changed in him during Big Ten play last season. He started to discover how good his game could be. His intensity focused.

And that started again. It was something he even thought about before the game.

"Last season, I thought I was playing really good and thought about the things that got me there," Hardaway said. "So I'm just trying to make plays for my team, knock down open shots, take it to the basket and just trying to do little things for my teammates."

Just in case he didn't know it, junior guard Matt Vogrich reminded him of what he did during Big Ten season as a freshman and how he could do it again as a sophomore.

Then, after a rough start, he went out and did it.

"In a game, if he gets into a flow like this, he's really tough to stop," Smotrycz said. "Especially if he's not making threes. If his threes are falling, it's nearly impossible, I guess."

That could be the scary part about the evolution of Hardaway's game. Against Penn State he missed those shots. And the Nittany Lions could barely stop him anyway.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.