In late December a funny thing happened. When it seemed like the season was lost and Michigan would likely struggle to stay off the NCAA tournament bubble following Mitch McGary's season ending injury announcement, Michigan didn't go to the mat. McGary, who last played against Arizona in Michigan's close home loss to the number one team in the nation, had been a big part of Michigan's success to that point.
The Wolverines struggled early in the season establishing an offensive rhythm. Apparently, losing the national player of the year and a consensus all-American point guard is a big deal, and Michigan learned that the hard way. The team struggled to put away Iowa State late in the game on the road, fell apart at Duke, and underperformed majorly on offense in an upset loss to Charlotte.
The losses all had one thing in common: sub-50% assist rates as a team. The Wolverine offense was stagnant as Michigan's wing players couldn't get into the lane with any consistency. Glenn Robinson III looked nothing like the potential lottery pick he was pegged as earlier in the year, Caris LeVert was wildly inconsistent, and while Nik Stauskas was the best most complete player, his game against Duke was a clear indication that he would need some help lest he be smothered by opposing defenses that were not scared of any other Wolverines.
McGary provided some of that help. In his eight games — During Michigan's 4-4 non-conference stretch between ISU and Arizona — McGary helped spur Michigan's offense into transition with outlet passes and by pushing the pace himself. Michigan is still not a fast team in overall pace (just 64.3 possessions per game, 310th in the country), but often those chances that McGary generated through rebounds, steals, and other hustle plays took on added importance because Michigan still struggled in half-court sets. It was those high energy plays that Michigan wasn't able to get from McGary's two replacements, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford.
Morgan is the elder statesman of Michigan basketball in 2014. A fifth year senior that went from an afterthought as a recruit to a solid Big Ten center and then to the bench as McGary exploded onto the scene. All the while, Jordan Morgan was content to do the little things he has always excelled at. Box out, run the floor, and play good position defense.
Horford's career to date has been more up and down. He was a bench player as a freshman, lost most of his sophomore year to a foot injury, and spent parts of last season dealing with more injury concerns. When he was on the floor he was either flashing enough athleticism to be a shot blocking presence and strong rebounder or racking up fouls at a prodigious rate (6.5 fouls/40 last season, which was down from his 8.2 as a true freshman).
Neither player was McGary, and as Michigan came down from the heartbreak of losing at home to the number one team in the country late in the game, it seemed like Michigan's Big Ten title hopes were all but gone. A 4-4 record with McGary over that stretch was bad enough to think about. How Michigan would cope without him in the coming Big Ten season was anyone's guess.
In the first game without McGary it was Jordan Morgan who stepped up big for Michigan. In 24 minutes he scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds — his first game over 20 minutes and easily his most productive of the still young season. Horford, who fouled out almost immediately, would be limited in the game with two points and five fouls in six minutes.
The Holy Cross game was a good preview of what Michigan would see more out of these two. Morgan scored six points on 3/3 shooting while Horford added 10 on 4/7. Each would contribute five rebounds. Over the next five games, Michigan's two bigs would continue to help the team with efficient play within the context of the offense.
Michigan lost its preseason all-American center and has replaced his production with a platoon of players averaging 16 points, 11 rebounds, and less than two turnovers per game in forty minutes, and hitting better than three-quarters of their shots.
Admittedly, this isn't as much a function of what Morgan and Horford are capable of providing on their own, but rather their ability to play within the offense and do the little things that Michigan needs.
Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert have come on as of late on the wings and Michigan is using a lot of high screen and roll action to get the ball inside and force the defense to react. Both LeVert and Stauskas have done this very well. In the last five games LeVert has 19 assists and Stauskas has 24. The beneficiaries of a lot of these assists are Morgan and Horford, who have been wildly efficient in roll action. The play is getting Michigan's bigs open looks at the basket. Both of them are converting those looks well.
The road doesn't get any easier as the next two games are going to force Morgan and Horford to deal with the active, uptempo front line of Iowa and then contend with Adreian Payne of Michigan State. Further down the road are games against Indiana's freshman sensation Noah Vonleh, Ohio State's Amir Williams, and more games against Iowa, MSU, and Wisconsin. The Big Ten isn't forgiving, and it takes consistent effort and a high level of play.
For the first quarter of the Big Ten season Michigan has gotten that level of play from its two experienced big men. If those two can continue to do the little things and make the most of their opportunities within the offense, Michigan can make a lot of noise in a tight Big Ten conference race.
Funny how expectations can turn on their head like that.