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Mailbag: Two games in, many question marks for Michigan

Todd Needle/Daily
Sophomore forward Jon Horford has been rotating in the starting lineup with sophomore forward Jordan Morgan so far this season. Buy this photo

BY LUKE PASCH
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 15, 2011

Feast your eyes, basketball fans. It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for.

The inaugural event. The grand opening. Your first ever: weekly hoops mailbag. The men’s basketball writers have heard your questions, and after (relatively) prolonged deliberation and a gaze into the crystal ball (iTunes visualizer), we have your answers.

Don’t know the storylines of the 2011-12 Michigan basketball season? Prepare to be enlightened.

Jon Horford started the exhibition over Jordan Morgan — was this a reflection of a newfound confidence in Horford by the coaching staff or is Morgan still the unquestionable leader in the post?
-John Person

To be clear, John, there is no real leader in the post right now.

Michigan coach John Beilein was disappointed in the performance of his bigs after Monday’s victory against lowly Towson, and he seemed desperate to find his leader before traveling to the highly anticipated Maui Invitational this weekend.

But I’ll say this — Beilein absolutely loves Jon Horford. That love isn’t secret, and it's not new, either.

Early last season, when Horford was scrapping for minutes behind Morgan in the paint, Beilein stood on a podium and proclaimed his love for the then-freshman center. I wasn’t the only reporter there who perked up — you mean that beanpole? I’m pretty sure he could get worked over in the paint by 50-year-olds in the CCRB.

Our reactions may have been short-sighted. Horford did appear to have solid instincts in his post game, and he had that prototypical Beilein-center-who-could-occasionally-pop-the-midrange-jumper look. But he was still too frail. To me, he was just the lankier, more-human younger brother of Al Horford.

Well, Horford shut me up this offseason. I’m sure you’ve heard — he gained nearly 30 pounds, nearly all of it muscle. I wasn’t there, so I’ll assume his summer involved 5 a.m. mornings, daily glasses of raw egg and slaughterhouse punching bags.

I can’t say I was surprised when Beilein named Horford the starter over Morgan in the exhibition, though Morgan excelled in his starting role last season. Beilein loves Horford, and the kid is supposedly tougher now — so why not experiment?

But now I wonder if Horford peaked over the summer. He didn’t have a great exhibition against Wayne State, and he was hardly present in last Friday’s season opener against Ferris State (no points, no shots, three boards and a turnover in 15 minutes of action).

Not Memphis. Not Duke. Ferris State. One needn’t be a basketball fan to know a Big Ten starting center should wipe the floor with the Bulldog frontcourt. And you probably don't know — because, honestly, why would you — that Ferris State returned exactly zero starters from last season. So Horford’s lackluster performance against inferior competition is troubling, to say the least.

And Morgan hasn’t been turning heads, either. He reclaimed the starting role against Towson on Monday, but that was more a product of Horford's unimpressive play than Morgan asserting himself on the court.

Thursday night’s matchup against Western Illinois provides Beilein with his final opportunity to find a frontcourt leader before Michigan (2-0) runs into Memphis in Maui.

What is Coach Beilein doing to help the free-throw troubles many team
members are experiencing?

-Christopher James Hung

Beilein is very aware of the free-throw issue. He said Monday night that his team can’t continue to shoot 50 percent from the line and win (that’s just a luxury of starting the season against a Division-II opponent and an opponent with no returning starters).

But what can Beilein do?

He’ll just have his players shoot a few extra free throws in practice. He’s a Division-I college basketball coach, not a camp counselor teaching a three-day seminar for Detroit youths on proper form.

Beilein recruits shooters. And over time — though sooner would be better than later — they’ll shake off that early-season rust and start knocking down free throws. Remember, even Ray Allen misses from the line sometimes.

But I would recommend that the Wolverines try to penetrate a bit more so his players could get to the free-throw line more frequently. It’s hard to do in his shoot-happy offense, but we could see more free-throw opportunities if the bigs emerge from dormancy sometime soon.

When do you think Stu (Douglass) will be relieved at point guard?
-Erin Hutchinson

I’m not sure you watched the same game I did on Monday.

Douglass was relegated to the sixth-man role he owned through most of last season, while freshman stud Trey Burke took over at the point, and it will likely be that way for the long haul.

It’s easy, really. Burke is the only true point guard on the roster, and Douglass is a natural shooter who thrives in the two-guard position.

Beilein was actually ready to make that move for the season opener last week, before Burke showed up late to the team walkthrough on the day of the game. The coach benched him for disciplinary reasons, but both have now dismissed the issue as a rookie mistake that won’t happen again.

Want your question answered by the Daily basketball beat? Send it in to daily.bball@umich.edu