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January 30, 2013The stage is finally set, and there were no speed bumps along the way Wednesday night to slow down the momentum heading into the biggest game of the season to this point.
With No. 1 Michigan easily dispatching Northwestern, 68-46, and No. 3 Indiana taking care of business at Purdue, 97-60, the final tune-ups are now in the books. The Wolverines will travel to Bloomington Saturday night, where all eyes will be upon them as they battle for pole position in the nation's toughest conference.
Before Wednesday's victory, Michigan players deftly deflected questions about looking past the Wildcats to the big one. Once the final buzzer sounded, they could finally look ahead.
"We're looking forward to it," sophomore point guard Trey Burke said. "There's going to be a lot of hype. It's going to be a crazy crowd and atmosphere. I know the guys are ready. Indiana is a really good team, and we'll start watching film on them tomorrow. We'll watch the game from last year and pick up things we could have done differently in Bloomington. We will be ready for them, and it should be a fun game."
The Wolverines have already dealt with more than their fair share of hype. A preseason top-five team, Michigan has steadily climbed the polls, while winning all but one game, a 53-50 decision at Ohio State in their biggest road test to date, to become the country's first team to hit the 20-win plateau.
But as the nation turns its eyes toward Michigan (ESPN's College GameDay will be on hand for primetime Saturday game), the players have showcased an ability to shut out the buzz and just focus on the task at hand.
"Getting the No. 1 ranking now is obviously not the main goal. The goal is to win championships," redshirt junior forward Jon Horford said. "To be the No. 1 team, it means something, but it's not everything."
A win Saturday would go a long way toward rocketing the Wolverines' toward their ultimate goal: a championship.
With just 10 games remaining in the regular season, Michigan and Indiana both sport just one in-conference loss. The winner will control its own destiny in the race to a Big Ten banner.
"It's going to be crazy," Burke said. "I'm looking forward to it. We're all looking forward to it. Indiana is a really good team, and they feed off their crowd.
"It's going to be very tough to beat them in Bloomington. Like Coach [LaVall Jordan] says, once you get off the bus, you're down 10. We will just try to do what we can to keep the crowd out of the game, keep their runs limited."
His absence from the game Wednesday was confirmed before tip, when he walked out on the court in a protective boot. Redshirt junior Jon Horford and freshman Mitch McGary were expected to step up en lieu of Morgan - and they did just that.
"Horford did a phenomenal job," Burke said. "We call it, 'Next Man Up.' When Jordan went down, we didn't know if it would be Mitch or Jon who would start. With Jon's experience, his injury and what he has gone through, we felt like he deserved to be in the starting lineup. Mitch has been playing so well off the bench, so Coach went with Jon. He came out on a high level. He got us a lot of extra possessions on the offensive end. He got to the free throw line and hit his free throws. If he can bring that every game, that will be another strength for us."
Horford, who earned the start, and McGary combined for 16 points and 18 rebounds against the Wildcats.
Horford, who has spent the better part of the last two seasons battling various injuries himself, said he was happy to get the start - but there are more important things than being on the court for the tip.
"It was nice, but I honestly don't care about starting or not starting," Horford said. "My mindset is just to contribute to the team, whatever the team needs. If they need me to dive on the floor, grab a rebound, whatever, I'll do it.
"You have to have a confidence about yourself, whether you're starting or not. Everyone on this team thinks the same way. Honestly, starting isn't even that big of a deal. Everyone has to have the same mentality - you have to come in and contribute."
Equally as important as their production, Horford and McGary committed just four combined fouls (two apiece) after totaling seven in last weekend's win at Illinois.
Clean defensive play has been a staple of Morgan's emergence as a defensive stalwart, and the younger big men are learning to play without fouling.
"The coaches told us, 'You have to be the anchor of the defense, and you have to make up for what Jordan does so well,'" Horford said. "I think we did a good job of that tonight.
"We stressed playing without fouls. Jordan does such a great job of it. He plays defense without fouling, and Mitch and myself have a tendency to be a little more aggressive in some areas. Jordan did a great job of reminding us to stay calm."