With a boot on his right foot, the defensive rock of the Michigan men’s basketball team walked around the court during warm-ups, watching his teammates do their pregame routine before taking on Northwestern.
Redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan wasn’t able to start Wednesday night against the Wildcats due to a right ankle injury sustained against Illinois, but that wasn’t an issue for the Wolverines. With freshman forward Mitch McGary as a solid contributor off the bench and redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford back from an injury, No. 1 Michigan had no problem facing a weak Northwestern frontcourt, defeating the Wildcats, 68-46.
Horford was called to start in Morgan’s place but McGary and Horford basically split minutes, as Michigan coach John Beilein usually does for the big men. The duo combined for 16 points and 18 rebounds — Horford even got three blocks on Northwestern’s Alex Olah — and played clean defense, committing a total of just four fouls.
Horford noted that Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander stressed playing error-free defense to keep from getting in foul trouble, as the depth could have been an issue against the Wildcats with just two main forwards in the rotation.
“It was a defensive message (before the game), you have to make up for (Morgan’s absence), you have to be the anchor of the defense,” Horford said. “You have to do the stuff Jordan does so well, and I feel like we did a pretty good job.
“(Defense) is just stressed a lot because Jordan does such a great job. He’s excellent at playing tough defense without fouling. Mitch and myself have a tendency to be more aggressive in some areas that causes us to get fouls, (and) Jordan did a great job reminding us to stay calm and not to get too anxious.”
McGary played as he typically does, providing energy off the bench and grabbing rebounds — he tied a career-best with 11 boards on Wednesday — and got his typical minutes. Both McGary and Horford were effective defensively, holding Olah and Jared Swopshire to just 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Beilein was impressed with Horford’s progression since returning from injury on Jan. 13 and noted how well the redshirt sophomore rebounded Wednesday night, saying he got rebounds “only Jon Horford could get.”
Sophomore guard Trey Burke, who was integral in finding either of the two forwards posting up in the paint for an easy layup, reflected Beilein’s sentiments, saying how he thought Horford deserved the starting job on Wednesday.
“Horford did a real phenomenal job, we call it ‘the next man up,’ ” Burke said. “He just came out playing at a high level. He got us a lot of extra possessions on the offensive and defensive end, got to the free-throw line, hit his free throws. If he can bring that every game, it can be another strength for us.”
Before Morgan’s injury, though, there had been a lot of speculation as to whether or not McGary would start in place of Morgan sometime down the stretch. Recently, Beilein has shot down any idea of McGary starting, as he’s been consistent off the bench, but the coach asked the freshman on Tuesday what he felt about starting in place of Morgan.
“I said to Mitch McGary, ‘Mitch, what do you feel about tomorrow? I don’t know what to do yet, you (and Jon) both practiced well,’ ” Beilein said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been coming off the bench for two years, I’m cool with coming off the bench.’ That really helped us make the decision. Jon would’ve done the same thing. ... Talk about sacrifice.”
NOTE: When asked about Morgan’s status for the top-five showdown against Indiana, Beilein expressed uncertainty. Beilein said Morgan has responded well to rehab but did not go through live practice on Tuesday.