ANN ARBOR -- A singular conversation has served as the stitching for Michigan’s now 16-game-old season. It’s revolved around one ambiguous word: Roles.
Who has what role? How have roles changed? Which roles have evolved? How did Mitch McGary’s decision to undergo back surgery alter players’ roles?
This Michigan team has been asked about more roles than De Niro.
That can officially end.
U-M is four games into Big Ten play. Four up, four down has given the program its first 4-0 start in league play since 2003. Six straight wins have come since a Dec. 14 loss to No. 1 Arizona.
Most importantly, after rolling out various models and versions, the Michigan team seen now -- 16 games into the year -- is of the finite sort. The starting lineup doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon. The two-piece frontcourt of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford is set. Derrick Walton Jr. is the point guard and will be backed up Spike Albrecht. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III are engines No. 1 and No. 2. Caris LeVert is the glue guy. Zak Irvin is the 3-point slinging scorer off the bench.
With a near sense of relief, Robinson began nodding before the question -- there’s no more reason to ask about roles, right? -- was done being asked.
“Our roles are set in place and I think that’s why we’ve been playing pretty well,” the sophomore said.
That's not to say Michigan can't improve or get worse or do any number of things. But at last the simple notion of who is what is clear and decided.
Now knowing what he has, coach John Beilein sees a road ahead that is equal-parts exciting and daunting. Michigan will play at No. 3 Wisconsin, host No. 14 Iowa and travel to No. 4 Michigan State over an 11-day span starting Saturday.
The three are a combined 45-5.
"I thought about that today, believe it or not -- that if we could get this W today, we're going to find out a little bit where we are and what we have to do to get better," Beilein said after Michigan's 80-67 win over visiting Penn State on Tuesday night. "And it's going to be over this game and the next game and the next game. It's a very difficult stretch."
To lean on the oft-used "defining stretch" designation would be an overstatement, as three games rarely define a 30-plus game season. More accurately, this stretch will reveal where this Michigan team -- the one with roles refined and defined -- exists on a Big Ten ladder with slippery rungs.
"We see it every year," Beilein said. "There are going to be three or four games that are just going to be really difficult. And if you can get wins in any of those games, it’s a big step -- a big step to postseason play. So we’ve got to hunker in and watch the Badgers and see what we can do."
Records and stats aside, Michigan is good and getting better, making the Wisconsin-Iowa-Michigan State minefield all the more interesting. U-M finally knows what it is and now gets to find out where it stands.
"I guess now we’re really going to see," Stauskas said.
Given the impending stretch, Tuesday's win over Penn State smelled like a trap game and delivered some of those scents. The lowly Nittany Lions hung around, trimming a 14-point first-half deficit to seven at halftime. It shrunk to two before U-M kicked into gear with 15 minutes remaining, reeling off a 19-5 run.
Defense, or a lack thereof, was again a concern. Through four Big Ten games, U-M is allowing league foes to shoot 45.1 percent from the field. Penn State shot 49.1 percent and made 21-of-34 shots (61.8 percent) from inside the arc.
Just because roles are filled, doesn't mean the work is done.
The current incarnation of U-M is a talented offensive team that plays at its own pace, but can amass points quickly. It scored 80 points Tuesday on 61 possessions, a solid 1.311 points-per-possession rate, and committed only six turnovers.
Defense is another story.
"I feel like we have another level, we have another gear, especially defensively," Horford said. "Offensively, we’re very talented and that will take you places, but if we really want to be a championship team, we have to buy into defense even more than we have. It’s progressing, slowly by surely."
Now with roles, Michigan needs progress.
Same team, different buzzword.
"I feel like we’re going to get there," Horford said. "Then that’s when we’ll become a special team."
Brendan F. Quinn covers University of Michigan basketball. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on Wolverines hoops. He can be contacted at email@example.com