Despite praise, question marks surround Michigan frontcourt on both ends

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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 19, 2014

While the Michigan men’s basketball team has had mixed results defending opposing big men this year, the Wolverines hadn’t been exposed this season quite like they were by Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky on Sunday.

Kaminsky scored 25 points on 16 shots along with 11 rebounds in the 75-62 Badgers win. Michigan was criticized for not double-teaming the 6-foot-11 forward, but the truth of the matter was that putting an extra man on Kaminsky meant leaving another man open. With Wisconsin’s deadly arsenal of 3-point shooters, that would be just as risky.

“He just dominated,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.

Kaminsky’s shooting prowess also forced Beilein to distribute minutes unequally among his forwards — he played fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan for 29 minutes, while redshirt junior Jon Horford received just nine. Horford, while taller, lacks lateral quickness and the ability to defend on the perimeter, putting the onus on Morgan to stop the Wisconsin big man for most of the afternoon.

“They’re going to keep moving and trying their best,” Beilein said. “But (Kaminsky) made some great moves and finished around the hoop.”

Since sophomore forward Mitch McGary exited the picture in late December to have back surgery, Morgan and Horford have been widely praised for replicating the star’s production. In fact, one coach went so far as to say that Michigan is better off the way things are now.

“Once McGary was out and they knew he was out, and they could only worry about who they are, not who they could be, I think that helped them,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles after the Wolverines’ 79-50 win on Feb. 5. “Now that the roles are identified more clearly, they’ve just taken off.”

However, the notion that the Wolverines’ frontcourt production has sufficiently replaced that of their preseason All-American is merely a product of psychological gymnastics. While Morgan and Horford’s combined 12 points and 10 rebounds per game in Big Ten play align closely with McGary’s career averages, those statistics fail to consider the allocation of playing time. McGary has averaged 20.6 minutes over his career, while the aggregate “Morford” numbers since the new year have been over the course of 38.1 minutes per game.

That McGary’s numbers over half a game are comparable to Horford and Morgan’s over 38 minutes speaks more to the difficulty of handling McGary’s absence than it does praise the production of his replacements.

Making sense of how Michigan has done defensively in McGary’s absence is more difficult. The jury’s still out on how well the Wolverines can defend opposing centers.

While no opposing big men had scored more than 16 points against Michigan in Big Ten play until Kaminksy’s Bill Walton-esque show Sunday, it’s not as if they’ve had much trouble scoring against the Wolverines. Middling centers like Stanford’s Stefan Nastic, Minnesota’s Elliott Eliason, Northwestern’s Alex Olah, Iowa’s Adam Woodbury and Ohio State’s Amir Williams have gone 5-for-6, 5-for-6, 4-for-5, 3-for-3 and 3-for-4, respectively, against Michigan this season.

Most of the responsibility for those performances falls on Morgan and Horford, but opposing teams also like to set screens to force switches so that the center can attack sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III, giving them a more advantageous mismatch.

Michigan defended the league’s more capable centers acceptably, but nothing more. Kaminsky scored 14 points on 50-percent shooting in the teams’ first matchup, Purdue’s AJ Hammons netted 16 on 50-percent shooting in late January, and Noah Vonleh of Indiana tallied 10 points on 56-percent shooting along with 12 rebounds a few weeks ago. But the Wolverines haven’t yet had to face perhaps the best big man in the league.

That’s Adreian Payne of Michigan State, who was out with an injury for the Spartans’ 80-75 loss to Michigan on Jan. 22. The senior forward averages 16 points and 8 rebounds per game, and he figures to give Morgan and Horford all they can handle on Sunday.

Michigan can try to neutralize him with a double team, a luxury it couldn’t afford against Wisconsin — Michigan State simply doesn’t have the same caliber of 3-point shooting.

The Wolverines will also hope the Spartans don’t get Branden Dawson — who reportedly broke his hand after slamming his fist against a table during a film session — back for Sunday’s showdown.

If healthy, his 10 points and nine rebounds per game at power forward will make the Michigan frontcourt’s toughest task of the season even tougher.