January 6, 2014

Borton's Blog: Rise of Morford

Mitch McGary is gone, betrayed by his back, and he's not returning any time soon. The start of the Big Ten season, though, delivered a reminder than McGary didn't take all of Michigan's big-man game along with him.

Now, folks were naturally excited about having McGary in the middle of the mix this year. He'd come on to light the fire last March, one that burned all the way to the NCAA title game in Atlanta.

Mitchell Neil William McGary averaged a freshman-respectable 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds as a rookie. He was averaging 9.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this year, before the rehab route for his back gave way to the scalpel, but that doesn't tell the story.

In tournament play, McGary averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. He became a force that forced other Michigan big men into the shadows, while he soaked up the spotlight.

Now, McGary faces a long haul in the background. His Michigan future remains uncertain, but the games go on. That's where fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan and redshirt junior Jon Horford come in.

Morgan, especially, experienced the other side of the attention meter after injuring an ankle last year. He started through the first half of the season, riding Michigan's undefeated wave through the non-conference and into Big Ten play.

But his own physical limitations and McGary's huge strides forward made Morgan a complementary piece at tournament time. Heading into this season, assistant coach Bacari Alexander praised Morgan's leadership and team-mindedness, which included willingness to accept a role.

It was clear from the start that role didn't include starting, at least when McGary got healthy.

Now the map has changed dramatically. Morgan supplied three points and three rebounds in the opening road win at Minnesota, and followed it up with eight and eight at home versus Northwestern. Meanwhile, Horford went for 14 points and nine rebounds at Minnesota, eight and seven against Northwestern.

That's a combined big-man average of 16.5 points, 13.5 rebounds. Pretty solid from the five spot, especially when you throw in redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt's three-pointer against the Wildcats, which the ever team-minded John Beilein made a point to do.

"I love that our big guys were able to get 18 points and 16 rebounds between the three of them today," Beilein said. "We're finding ways to make up for the injury to Mitch, and they did a great job of it today."

Northwestern coach Chris Collins took notice as well. He made a point about Michigan's depth throughout his post-game comments, and the big men proved no exception.

"They do a great job," he said. "They're veteran guys, and they've been in this system now … they've played in a lot of games, and they know what they're supposed to do. They do the dirty work. They kind of have a two-headed monster now at that spot.

"They split the time. You look at a combination … out of that spot, they give you 15 points and 16 rebounds. That's pretty good production.

"And they don't run any plays for those guys. They just play off penetration. They get to their spots, they catch and finish, and they give them good defense, rebounding and toughness."

Horford, who battled injuries and fought hard to carve out a niche in the Michigan lineup, has demonstrated a nice mid-range jumper with the type of touch that could represent a slap in the face for opponents. He's working hard on getting better at Michigan's defensive switches, and provides a strong rebounder.

The two have to be looking at this season much differently than they were. Suddenly, they're big-minutes men (Horford 20, Morgan 18 against Northwestern) on a team seeking to compete for a Big Ten title and beyond.

It's not like they haven't been there before, Beilein reminded.

"We won a Big Ten championship with those two, and Evan [Smotrycz] gave us some time at center, maybe 15, 18 minutes," Beilein said. "But those two played the most of our minutes on a team that ended up having a pretty good year.

"They are just now getting back to a rhythm where they're not looking over their shoulder. It's good. They're in a good place. When we didn't guard [Northwestern's] Drew Crawford the first couple of times, nobody else on the roster has ever seen him play.

"Everybody else wasn't here two years ago when we played them. We had to convince everybody, 'This kid can really play. You can't just stand there and watch him shoot.' It was just Jon and Jordan with the experience we really need out there."

It's going to be that way, most likely, for the rest of the season. The shock of McGary's absence has worn off. The reality of the task at hand remains.

Michigan won't be as flashy at the five as when McGary snatched down rebounds and led the fast break, or as physical under the boards. But it can be good enough to win a lot of games, and that's all Morford (or Horgan, on any given night) can ask.

"It's one game at a time," Morgan said. "We're a young team, and we can't look past any single game. Especially in this conference, every night is going to be a fight, and you never know what kind of game it's going to be. Coming off last year especially, everyone gives us their best shot."

Morgan and Horford are just happy to pull the boxing gloves back on, knowing they have more than a puncher's chance for success.

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