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Without Morgan, Michigan struggling to find consistency in post

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 20, 2013

It’s hard to quantify the loss of a player like Jordan Morgan, Michigan basketball’s best and most experienced post player. The redshirt junior isn’t someone that racks up impressive offensive statistics, but his presence was missed immediately after he suffered a right-ankle sprain against Illinois on Jan. 27.

Michigan coach John Beilein thought that Morgan would only be out for a week or so, but the injury still hasn’t fully improved almost a month later. The center’s absence has forced two other Wolverines — redshirt sophomore Jon Horford and freshman Mitch McGary — to claim bigger roles, with varying levels of success.

Without Morgan, Michigan’s lack of consistency in the post has been more noticeable in some games than in others, with the best examples coming over a recent eight-day stretch.

Beilein has been forced to tinker with his starting lineup without a healthy Morgan, resulting in three different starting big men over the last three contests. Beilein doesn’t seem any closer to finding the right combination, though, because none of the three options worked out particularly well. Until Morgan’s ankle is fully recovered, Beilein will have to keep tinkering.

Against Wisconsin, Horford started his fourth straight game, despite previously struggling to be dependable in that role. He had another off performance, tallying just two points and two rebounds in seven minutes.

Off the bench, McGary had one of his most complete performances of the season. He scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds while showing off an improved jump shot in a career-high 32 minutes on the court.

So the next game, a huge tilt on the road against then-No. 8 Michigan State, Beilein replaced the struggling Horford with his true freshman — McGary’s first career start.

In a hostile Breslin Center, the results weren’t much better. McGary looked flustered from the start, committing as many turnovers as points scored — four — in 26 minutes while getting beat up defensively by the Spartans’ veteran frontcourt. Off the bench, Horford and Morgan weren’t much help, combining for one point and three rebounds.

Their Michigan State counterpart, senior Derrick Nix, finished with almost three times as many points as three Wolverines combined (14), and didn’t miss a shot until there were less than two minutes remaining in the first half.

This all culminated in a near-disaster against the worst team in the Big Ten, Penn State, last Sunday. Morgan started his first game since being injured, and while he didn’t seem fully recovered, the results were still expected to be better than the previous games.

But in a lazy Sunday of a game, Michigan got a grand total of zero points from its post players.

Morgan looked slower and more tentative than he did before the injury, especially when trying to get around screens on defense, and isn’t close to the level he was at before the Illinois game.

“We are still challenged right now with Jordan Morgan,” Beilein said after the game on Sunday. “(Penn State) is a great ball-screen team, and they will run your five men off ball screens all day long, and Jordan Morgan cannot do that just yet.

“He’s very slow at it, and until he gets better, that really affects us.”

After the Michigan State game, Morgan said that he was feeling “fine,” and healthy enough to play, even though the ankle was clearly slowing him down.

Before the injury, Morgan had started 19 games, averaging almost seven points and a little over five rebounds in almost 20 minutes per game.

Since the injury? Four games played (with one game started), with one point in 22 total minutes.

“We had no idea that Jordan Morgan would take this long,” Beilein said. “He wants to play, he’s insisting on playing, he’s insisting on coming to practice, so you’ve got to trust him. But when you watch him move out there, it’s not happening. He’s delayed.”

This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if Horford or McGary had taken advantage of the starting opportunity, but neither big man has stepped up.

Plus, the difference between Morgan and the other two Wolverine post players is significantly different on defense. Without the defensive-minded Morgan in the middle of the defense, Michigan has given up more back cuts and easy baskets near the hoop then ever before.

Coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally, Michigan has had its first real slump of the season since Morgan’s injury, losing three of its last five games. One of those wins came awfully close to a loss against Penn State, which still doesn’t have a conference win.

If Morgan’s ankle doesn’t cooperate, then there’s a good chance Michigan’s season won’t, either.