CHAMPAIGN — Just minutes into the game, redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan landed funny on his right ankle and was limping off the court.
He immediately headed to the locker room to get checked out, and freshman forward Mitch McGary subbed in for the starter.
Matching up against Illinois’ inexperienced sophomore center Nnanna Egwu on Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team was hoping to exploit the mismatch with a rotation of three big men in Morgan, McGary and redshirt junior Jon Horford, who is back from a knee injury he suffered in December.
Morgan’s injury didn’t help the Wolverines’ plan to attack the paint, but it wasn’t too much of an issue for No. 2 Michigan (6-1 Big Ten, 19-1 overall). McGary, Horford and redshirt freshman Max Bielfeldt filled in for the injured Morgan, and were big factors in the Wolverines’ 74-60 win over Illinois on Sunday.
“(I) love how many young kids got out there and played,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Jordan Morgan getting the ankle injury early gave three guys an opportunity to play that haven’t been getting as many minutes as they’d like. (I was) really impressed with how our big men filled in there.”
The forwards combined for 31 points and 22 rebounds, and if the big men weren’t open, it was freshman guard Nik Stauskas open on the backdoor cut or sophomore guard Trey Burke driving to the rim for a layup. The Wolverines tallied 42 points in the paint and shot 53 percent from the field off a combination of post-ups and open cutters.
McGary is typically the first man off the bench for Michigan, and though he had trouble protecting the basketball and finishing his layups early on, he became a force on the boards. The freshman was often able to outmuscle his defender, and finished with eight rebounds and six points.
The Wolverines also had help on the boards from freshman forward Glenn Robinson III — the squad’s leading rebounder added six to Michigan's 36 total rebounds. Horford also contributed seven points and five rebounds in his season-high 17 minutes, and Bielfeldt had a four point, two rebound effort on Sunday. The forwards were also successful in containing Egwu and forward Sam McLaurin, who totaled just 13 points.
“Guys stepped up tonight, (and) we knew that with Morgan going down,” Burke said. “Coach calls him the minster of defense — he’s one of the older captains, he’s been in the program for years — so once he went down, Jon and Max came in and stepped up.”
Added Robinson: “(Horford and Bielfeldt) are both getting better every day. Sometimes they might be on scout team and we notice them beating us sometimes on the drills. They’re great players and they just need to keep doing what they’re doing.”
Sunday’s game marked Horford’s third game back from his injury, and though Beilein has felt that Horford still isn’t 100 percent, he’s been impressed with his progression so far.
“For him to get to where he needs to be, (Horford) needs to get reps in both practice and in games,” Beilein said. “Because of injuries, it’s been tough to get him the reps he needs. He needs high volume of reps. ... I thought he played really well the other day against Purdue (and) practiced really well the last couple days. He’s got enough volume right now where we felt he could play, and with Jordan hurt, it expedited it.”
But with Morgan in warmups and Horford in to start the second half, the Illini (2-5, 15-6) made some important adjustments. Instead of settling for outside shots — Illinois took 15 3-pointers in the first half alone — it started driving to the basket with much success.
Early in the second stanza, Illini guards Tracy Abrams, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson led Illinois on a quick 5-0 run to pull within five. The trio was easily able to drive to the basket and draw fouls — all nine free throw attempts for Illinois came in the second half — and combined for 37 of the Illini’s 60 total points.
But the Wolverines responded with a long run of their own to finalize the 14-point victory. Led by Burke, Michigan extended its lead to as much as 18 points late in the second half. Burke finished with a game-high 19 points, and four of the Wolverines’ starters finished in double figures. Robinson and Stauskas each tallied 14 points, and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. added 12 points.
As a result of the Wolverines’ push, Illinois was forced to speed up its offense and shoot from beyond the arc. The Illini finished at a 24-percent clip from three, continuing its poor shooting from the field, and the Wolverines’ defense forced 15 turnovers by forcing Illinois into a faster-paced offense.
“The numbers Illinois hit had a lot to do with a great, tough attitude by our defense,” Beilein said. “(But) because a lot of my teams have been based on three point shooting, sometimes it’s just a matter of having one game where a couple guys hit a shot and it gives everybody confidence. My teams have had incredible dry spells at times, and when you play that way, it can get difficult at times. ...They’ll shoot their way out of it eventually.”