Jon Horford, Jordan Morgan playing well with Mitch McGary sidelined

Michigan vs Northwestern_18Michigan vs Northwestern_23Michigan vs Northwestern_20
Scott Mapes

When news broke that Mitch McGary would be having back surgery and was out indefinitely, it sent a groan through the Michigan fan base. The Wolverines would likely be without their All-American center for the rest of the season. Panic didn’t set in, but the news meant a much more difficult road to success for this year’s team.

But so far, through the first two Big Ten games, Mitch McGary’s replacements have had a huge hand in Michigan’s two conference victories. Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, splitting time at the five position, have been exactly what they need to be for this team: solid, reliable leaders.

Over Michigan’s first two games of the Big Ten season, the two centers are combining for averages of 16 points and 13.5 rebounds. That would be terrific statistical production from any one center — even for a guy like McGary.

But John Beilein said after Sunday’s 74-51 win over Northwestern that Horford and Morgan provide more than just post production — it’s their experience that truly sets them apart and makes them integral assets to a young Michigan team.

“We won a Big Ten championship with those two,” Beilein said. “Those two played most of the minutes on a team that ended up having a pretty good year. They just are now just getting back to a rhythm where they’re not looking over their shoulder. It’s good. I think they’re in a good place. When we didn’t guard Drew Crawford the first couple of times, no one else on the team has ever seen him play. Everybody else wasn’t here two years ago. We had to convince everyone that the kid can really play. You can’t just stand there and watch him shoot. Jordan and Jon have the experience that we really need out there.”

Michigan’s center duo is an amalgam of two players with differing styles. Morgan is cerebral, playing defense with his head and directing traffic on the court. He is also mainly a catch-and-finish player on offense. Horford tends to play with abandon, flying all over the court for blocks on defense, sometimes at the expense of rebounds. He also has a more advanced offensive game than Morgan, as evidenced by Beilein’s comfort level with posting Horford up in isolation situations on the block.

What stands out about the two elder statesmen is their improvement. For most players playing in their fourth or fifth year in the same system, it’s safe to assume they have reached their ceilings in that time. Both Horford and Morgan have demonstrated obvious improvement offensively. Morgan has shown off an impressive hook shot in each of the past two games, while Horford has displayed everything from a midrange jumper to a nice jump-stop move in the post to improved elevation and aggressiveness.

That being said, both players know their primary responsibility: play solid defense, get rebounds and finish at the rim. In that respect, both have been doing that better than they ever have. Northwestern coach Chris Collins commented on the effectiveness of Michigan’s center duo after the game on Sunday.

“(Morgan and Horford) do a great job. They’re veteran guys, so they’ve been in the system now for four and five years and they’ve played in a lot of big games,” Collins said. “They know what they’re supposed to do. They do a lot of dirty work. They kind of have a two-headed monster now at that spot. They split time. You look at the combination — eight and eight, seven and eight. So out of that spot, they give you 15 points and 16 rebounds. That’s pretty good production.”

Collins was impressed with how that production fills in the gaps of Michigan’s regular offense. Morgan and Horford don’t need Michigan to do anything special, they just find places to produce within the scheme of the offense.

“They don’t run any plays for those guys,” Collins explained. “They just play off penetration, they get to their spots, they catch and finish, and they give them good defense, rebounding and toughness.”

With McGary taking up most of the minutes from the latter half of last season through the first part of this one, an issue for the bigs has been making sure they are in good enough game shape to play the minutes that will be demanded of them. Beilein said during his press conference that it’s not so much production on the court that determines whether or not one of them is replaced with the other but the onset of fatigue.

Morgan echoed that sentiment after the game, but added he’s getting back into the shape he was in as a sophomore and junior, when he was playing more significant minutes.

“Maybe just a little bit (out of shape), just my wind kind of,” Morgan said. “It’s not that bad. We were in great shape coming into this season. To be honest I felt better today than I did a couple days ago and it’s only going to get better as I push myself through practices and games.”

Above everything else, Horford and Morgan have provided steadfast leadership in a season that has already experienced its shares of ups and downs. After the close win over Minnesota on Thursday, Horford was asked about one of his best games he’s ever played in a Michigan uniform. The redshirt junior scored 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds. This is what he had to say about his production:

“Honestly, I don’t think about it,” Horford said. “I just think about what I have to do for the team. I know defense and rebounding are going to be crucial to our success down the stretch, so that’s what I’m thinking. Offensively, I’m just playing off my teammates. We have so many weapons. I’m going to get open just because teams are so worried about these guys scoring.”

  • Mattski

    This team’s ceiling for success looks higher to me after the last two games. Morgan and Horford won’t excel so much in every game, but together they suggest that that the center position can be high-level legit as the season wears on. Walton’s maturation, Stauskas’s emerging leadership, and Irvin’s ability to microwave some offense loom large going forward. Can GRIII move toward true dominance as a B1G player? Can Caris start to overcome the several weaknesses in his game that play has revealed? If there are seven-eight solid guys that Beilein can flexibly use, we’ve got ourselves a team. It may be have to be more scrappy and clever than physically dominant, as last year, but that seems characteristic of Beilein teams anyway. At the outset of the two last games I saw a team that, like last year’s, was tending to play down to opponents and get down on itself, too. But then I saw something different, an ability to focus that I really liked. . . a lot to build on there. I see Caris and Robinson as the biggest question marks–if those two can get really comfortable. . .

  • 72blue

    I disagree that Jon has a “more advanced offensive game,” or that he plays with “abandon.” I certainly agree that he works hard, but his offensive game is limited to fall away jumpers. He is big enough and jumps well enough to rebound fairly well, but when a guard penetrates, he does the same thing every time–stops in front of them with his hands straight up (like he has been coached to do, no doubt). This may seem like the thing to do, but these teams have seen this on film, and the opposing guards have NO TROUBLE passing below Jon to the man Jon has left. Jordan has a variety of moves in the post. Granted, he is not the greatest finisher, but part of that is his relative lack of size. It is clear that these guys both give all they have to the team, and I am very happy we have them, but I think Jordan is a much more advanced “basketball player” despite Jon’s bloodlines.

    • Champswest

      I think that Jon does have the more advanced offensive game and a higher up side. Both guys have improved since last year and continued playing time should elevate their games even more.

  • Chezaroo

    Very happy for these two young men. All players have weaknesses, but this pair always bring effort, they don’t complain, and the TEAM is always number one. They reflect all that is good about college basketball.

  • Dr_ZC

    With my very poor vision, I saw a couple of things on the court yesterday.
    (1) When Nik has the ball, both our bigs roll to the basket for the PNR, and Nik feeds them when they are free.
    (2) If Walton drives, our bigs rarely roll. It seems that Walton lacks the vision to feed them off the PNR.
    (3) Caris is trying to work the PNR, but most of the time he is lost dribbling-stopping and going, and our bigs cannot follow him. I think Caris has regressed on both, the defensive and offensive front. This is for the folks that want to see him play the point. He is basically an one-on-one player now, and defenses have done enough scouting to know his moves when he drives. They just close the lanes living him with no options.
    (4) Caris and Walton “botched” a few transition offense opportunities. They were one pass away from easy buckets, but they chose to reset.
    (5) Nik’s three pointer (I think it was the first), is what I was looking from him to do all the time. Nik dribbles, gets a screen from Morgan and pulls up hitting the three.
    (6) Spike anticipates very well, can find the shooters and sees the floor quite well for the assists. Once Walton can dribble-drive and dish for the dime, I would feel a lot better. When he gets a few more assists in a game (like the only one he had to GR3), I would get enough sleep, hoping that M can be a legit final 4 team.

  • yinkadoubledare

    “16 points and 13.5 rebounds. That would be terrific statistical production from any one center” I call it “Jondon Horgan”

  • Cory

    Let’s hope they keep it up!

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