Jordan Morgan was always there. When you look back on this past season, that is, the more you think about it, one of the most important pieces in MIchigan's run. Yes, development by Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert gave Michigan its primary scoring weapons, but without Morgan to help the team weather McGary's injury, things could have been much worse.
Of course, it was that McGary injury, the one that shelved him for the season back in December, that was supposed to be the death knell to Michigan's conference and NCAA tournament goals. McGary was and is an intriguing prospect in the middle, a man-child full out boundless energy and a knack for highwire offensive rebounds, igniting the fast break, and "how'd he get there so quick" steals that quickly lead to layups on the other end.
What Jordan Morgan did (with the help of Jon Horford) wasn't so much replace Mitch McGary. Morgan just brought a different skill set. One that was played closer to the ground and relied less on beating people with energy than beating them to the spot. Morgan's game is one that can be distilled down to bodies moving around a plane. Take away the skills such as shooting and dribbling and make basketball a game about position, both offensive and defensive, and Morgan would be in heaven.
In the end, Michigan got its replacement up front by not really replacing what it lost with more of the same. MIchigan adapted (albeit around a thoroughly known commodity to both coaches and players). There will be less familiarity this time around as Michigan looks to once again replace its production up front without Jon Horford (for sure), Glenn Robinson III (very likely), and possibly Mitch McGary (we will have to wait until another day to find out this).
The McGary Question
Bear with me on this, because I know I am restating a tired, obvious point: Mitch McGary returning to Michigan for one more year would be a pretty big deal.
Let's skip over the obvious reasoning. Mitch has, at least for a short stretch of his career that just so happened to fall during the NCAA tournament, put together something as close to an all-American caliber stretch as Michigan has seen from a frontcourt player in a long time. Granted, there are sample size and injury disclaimers that abound, but those are better left for another day. We know what Michigan could get out of Mitch, and that range falls between "all" and "nothing", and that even a semi-healthy McGary can be a big deal (look at the way he played early this season while working back from injury).
So yes, McGary skills are important, but what is perhaps more important is the versatility that this gives Michigan with its lineup. McGary has a reliable 15 foot jumper, but he hasn't proven to have real stretch-four range yet, and Michigan would be better served keeping him close to the basket because of his offensive rebounding ability.
Thankfully, Michigan has another big man waiting in the wings to step up. Mark Donnal redshirted this year and caught some buzz late for things he was doing in practice. He came to Michigan as a true stretch-four, capable of shooting from outside and playing defense/rebounding on the interior, and if McGary sticks around next year it will give Michigan more versatility with its lineup. WIth Donnal and McGary, Michigan has options to play either big or small. When one of the two needs a break the other can play the five and Michigan could bring in one of its bigger wings like Zak Irvin or Kam Chatman to present a look more in line with what Michigan has shown on offense the last two years. However, that also lets Michigan get 20-25 minutes of floor time with both of them playing, giving Michigan some badly needed size up front while still giving the Wolverines four shooters.
It would be a different look than what fans are used to, but it could also be brutally effective as well as a big step forward in rebounding for Michigan (an area that has routinely lagged behind on Beilein teams).
Bielfeldt An Option?
With Horford leaving, Michigan really has only one remaining post player on the roster that has both playing time and a certain future to be around next year*. Bielfeldt is a 6'7 banger from Illinois that has gotten mostly garbage time minutes outside of a few occasions where injuries and foul trouble have stretched Michigan's frontcourt thin. Of course, Bielfeldt's statistical output has been so small that he doesn't even register on Kenpom.
At this point Bielfeldt still seems like a guy best suited for a bench role that doesn't exceed 10 minutes per game. While he has shown promise as a rebounder despite his size, it is too large a disadvantage defensively. Furthermore, he doesn't have the outside shot to slide into the four position on offense which would give him a bit of protection in the form of another post defender to draw the toughest defensive assignments down low.
Michigan would need to see development in Bielfeldt's outside shot to warrant any consideration of larger scale playing time.
*(Yes, a transfer is technically possible, but Bielfeldt hasn't yet graduated so he is unable to transfer and play immediately, and since he has already taken a redshirt, he would lose one of his two years of eligibility if he left. Seems unlikely he would leave, but stranger things have happened.)
So, say the worst case scenario happens and Mitch McGary decides to leave despite the uncertainty surrounding his draft status. MIchigan will be thin up front, but it will still have a few bodies to move into the lineup. Most of those bodies will be fresh out of high school.
The obvious candidate for early playing time is Ricky Doyle, a three-star forward recruit out of Florida that comes in with more of a big man, back to the basket game. He had quite a bit of interest from some other solid basketball programs (Purdue, Stanford, Miami, Notre Dame) but has managed to stay under the radar.
It is unclear just what Doyle could bring to MIchigan's lineup. In a perfect world, Michigan would be allowed to stash Doyle away on the bench for a year to develop his game a la Mark Donnal. This world is not perfect, so the 6'9 230 lbs big man could be pressed into the rotation if Michigan is without McGary. If Michigan gets McGary back and he is healthy through the year, the best guess is that Doyle redshirts.
Part of the reason Michigan will be able to do this is because Kam Chatman provides a bit of versatility on the wing. Chatman isn't as strong as Glenn Robinson III, and would likely not directly impact the frontcourt lineup, but the 6'7 wing is lauded everywhere as a four-star prospect and in Rivals top 30 players nationally in the 2014 class. He would be a hard player to keep on the bench, and working him into the lineup in a similar way Michigan did with Zak Irvin would help relieve pressure on the wings while also allowing Michigan to potentially go small with Zak Irvin stepping out and playing a bit of the four position.
This isn't ideal. GRIII was a more physical presence on the boards and defense than Irvin last year, and while another year of development in the weight room will help, Irvin isn't really a stretch four just like GRIII was. Only in GRIII's case, having NBA-caliber mesurables is a pretty good way to be effective just about anywhere on the court the coaches tell you to play.
However, as a stopgap for when McGary or Donnal need a rest, Michigan could get 10-15 minutes a game out of this lineup and it wouldn't look much different than Michigan's offense this year.
The last name to watch is DJ Wilson, a 6'8 freshman that looks to be a true four without a great outside jumpshot and also somewhat physically unimposing at this stage in his career (because, duh, high schooler). Of all the incoming freshmen, Wilson most needs the redshirt year.
Michigan's frontcourt for next year will become clearer in the near future. Once GRIII makes his decision official Michigan will wait on McGary. If he too goes to the NBA, the Wolverines still have options, but that isn't necessarily comforting.
Unlike last year, Jordan Morgan isn't there waiting for an opportunity to write his final act. Jon Horford will play out his final act elsewhere and Michigan will find out what life is like without a fifth-year senior to ride in and save the day.