- Alden Reiss/Daily
By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 12, 2012
The frustrated cries from the Crisler Center crowd rang throughout the arena, matching the exasperated look on Jordan Morgan’s face.
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Eight minutes into Sunday’s game against Illinois, the redshirt sophomore forward for the Michigan men’s basketball team picked up his second foul and was forced to head to the bench. That was a bad omen for the Wolverines considering the man on the other team they were tasked with slowing down.
Meyers Leonard has been one of the breakout players in the Big Ten this season and a boon for the Fighting Illini, averaging 13.5 points and ranking third in the league in rebounding with 7.8 per game. At 7-foot-1, Leonard has a significant height advantage over every Michigan post player.
It was going to be tough to slow Leonard down even with Morgan on the floor, let alone with him watching on the sidelines. Plus, the Wolverines’ recent performances against the frontcourts of Ohio State and Michigan State weren’t exactly inspiring.
Leonard showed his strength early. In the first two minutes, he scored easily on a pick and roll and then established great position on sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz deep in the paint, quickly converting a lob pass into an uncontested layup.
But Morgan, Smotrycz, and indeed, the whole Michigan defense combined to stymie the future first-round NBA draft pick the rest of the way, as Leonard didn’t make another field goal and finished with five total points.
“I think our defensive scheme — trying to limit his touches — worked somewhat,” Smotrycz said. “(Leonard’s) tough, he takes up a lot of space. He’s a big guy, tough to get off the boards. Big (matchup) win for us.”
Of course, it’s easy to limit an opposing player when he’s not in the game, so it helped that Leonard got into early foul trouble himself. Just 16 seconds after Morgan picked up his second foul, Leonard did the same and was also forced to the bench for the rest of the half.
That allowed Michigan coach John Beilein to breathe a sigh of relief. Illinois backup center Nnanna Egwu isn’t nearly as effective as Leonard. It also eased the guilt of Morgan, who has done a better job of avoiding unnecessary fouls compared to last season.
“(Leonard’s) was a pretty good foul for us,” Morgan said. “It definitely helped us. We weren’t able to necessarily match his physicality. For him to have to go to the bench, it definitely balanced it out.”
But considering that Leonard played just seven minutes in the first half, and that the Illini committed nine turnovers and allowed the Wolverines to shoot nearly 57 percent from the field, Illinois coach Bruce Weber had to be thrilled to be down just six points at halftime.
The stage was set for a comeback — the Fighting Illini would be able to ride their talented big man the rest of the way, exposing Michigan’s lack of depth in the post with the absence of injured sophomore forward Jon Horford. And when Morgan, astoundingly, committed his third foul just 25 seconds after play resumed in the second half, Illinois was in even better position.
But Smotrycz, who had to learn the center position when he joined the Wolverines, was effective in the paint. Morgan was, too, when he re-entered the game later.
And the pair of Michigan post men were aided by their teammates, as it became a group effort to contain Leonard. The center found himself constantly harassed by double teams when he got the ball in the post — and that was if he managed to get the ball in the post at all, since the Wolverines worked hard to front Leonard and prevent passes from entering the paint.
Michigan also changed its look several times, switching from man-to-man to a 2-1-2 and a 2-3 zone for a few possessions in the second half and throwing off the Illini’s timing in the process. The combination of Morgan’s and Smotrycz’s individual efforts and the constant help kept Leonard from ever getting comfortable, despite his 12 rebounds.
“Defense against somebody like that goes beyond just posts battling,” Morgan said. “It’s the whole team. We need a lot of help, we need a lot of pressure on the ball, and we need everybody to be locked in on what we’re trying to do as a team.”
The Wolverines are used to having to deal with a quality frontcourt when playing Illinois. For the past four seasons, Michigan struggled to handle the Fighting Illini trio of 6-foot-9 Bill Cole, 6-foot-9 Mike Davis and 7-foot-1 Mike Tisdale.
But this year’s edition of Illinois wasn’t as imposing. Leonard still has holes in his game and doesn’t have the same surrounding talent as his predecessors did. Fellow forward Tyler Griffey did have a career-best 18 points, but he did most of his damage from the perimeter.
Still, slowing down a presence like Leonard is a positive sign for the Wolverines, who know that opponents will continue to try to attack the paint because of how thin Michigan is at center.
“We had a lot of attention on him,” Beilein said. “To be honest with you, we were very concerned about him.”