Michigan coach John Beilein has 33 feet and nine inches of height in his frontcourt, but he's still figuring out how to distribute it over 40 minutes.
In the fifth-ranked Wolverines’ 77-47 blowout win over Cleveland State to reach the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York City, Beilein had all five bigs see playing time in the first half alone and experimented with different two-post sets.
In Monday night’s win over IUPUI, Beilein played his starter, redshirt junior center Jordan Morgan, for 27 minutes, while freshman Mitch McGary got 11 minutes. Senior Blake McLimans, redshirt sophomore Jon Horford and redshirt freshman Max Bielfeldt all chipped in with 10 minutes.
Things switched up on Tuesday. Though Morgan continued to shoot well from the field — eight points on six shots — playing time was distributed more evenly. Morgan played just a quarter of the game while McGary played 17 minutes, Horford 11, and Bielfeldt and McLimans combined for another 11. The 53 combined minutes of frontcourt action exceeded Monday’s total by nine.
It paid off, too. In the first half, the Wolverines pulled down all but one of the Vikings’ misses. They seized the rebounding advantage in the game, 45-28.
“I could definitely tell (the increase of height on the court) just by the rebounds,” said sophomore point guard Trey Burke. “It’s kind of like, the team shoots, it’s our rebound. When we have a smaller lineup, it’s harder to get rebounds as much as we do when the bigs are out there.”
Though undersized freshman Glenn Robinson III starts at forward and doesn’t figure to relinquish that spot this season, Beilein’s mind starts racing when the St. John, Ind. native needs a rest or moves to the perimeter. He mixed and match with different two-post sets throughout the game — a look he has traditionally avoided and appears tentative to implement this season.
“As we try to figure out what the rotation is, and I expect it to still evolve, how can we play with two posts?” Beilein said. “Is it better to play with two posts? You’ve got to get out there and do it.”
Added McGary: “When it’s either Jordan and I or Jon and I, Jordan and Jon, having that much size and presence in there gives the defense some difficulties.”
The two-post look contrasts with Beilein’s penchant to spread the floor and have his power forward be versatile and score from outside of the paint, like Robinson. McLimans, though 6-foot-10, prefers to hang around the 3-point line and is the only big man to conform to Beilein’s traditional “stretch 4.”
When McGary signed his letter of intent and when Horford got healthy, Beilein knew he had to find a way to get some of his best players on the floor — and those players weren’t guys that shot from outside.
McGary, who has struggled to finish around the basket in the exhibitions and the two regular season games, was plenty efficient on Tuesday. He made each of his three shots — all in the first half — and grabbed nine rebounds.
“The better he gets, the more we can play two bigs at the same time,” Beilein said. “He can play much bigger than he is. Understanding the college game, he’s getting better at that. I’m really pleased with his progress. Even though you haven’t seen it in the numbers like Glenn, I have a great feeling you’ll see it in the future.”
Like clockwork, Beilein has let Morgan play the first five to six minutes of games this season before calling on McGary. From there, game conditions and McGary’s conditioning determine how long the Chesterton, Ind. native will go.
“I thought that was Mitch’s best energy, best half so far,” Beilein said. “He really gave us a lot when he got in there. He got a little tired. Another week here of Camp Sanderson and Camp Beilein will get him in a little better shape.”