Productive frontcourt unusually quiet in loss

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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 3, 2014

On Saturday, when Indiana handed the Michigan men’s basketball team its first Big Ten loss, much of the attention fell on the Hoosiers’ victory in the backcourt.

But lost in the fanfare surrounding Yogi Ferrell’s big day — the Indiana guard had a game-leading 27 points while holding sophomore guard Nik Stauskas to just six points — was an ineffective outing from what has been a surprisingly productive Wolverine frontcourt.

By now, the storyline surrounding Michigan’s unexpected surge following sophomore forward Mitch McGary’s back surgery and ensuing absence has been beaten to death. And while Stauskas, averaging 17.2 points in conference play, has drawn much of the credit for the Wolverines’ 10-game win streak that was snapped by the Hoosiers, Michigan’s under-the-radar frontcourt tandem has filled in well.

After just two regular-season starts last season, McGary exploded onto the scene in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 14.3 points per game and 10.6 rebounds per game. Those numbers alone were enough to land him on nearly every preseason All-American list. But over that same six-game span, forwards Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford combined to contribute less than three points and rebounds per game.

Despite the experience of the fifth-year senior Morgan, who started all but two games last year, and redshirt junior Horford, filling in McGary’s void was thought to be a difficult task, if not impossible.

But heading into Sunday’s game in Bloomington, the pair’s contributions had been surprisingly sound. A quick glimpse at either of the players’ individual statistics reveals nothing astounding — Morgan was averaging 8.4 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game, while Horford posted 6.3 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game — but combined, their 14.7 points per game and 10.4 rebounds per game mirror McGary’s tournament numbers almost exactly.

So what went wrong against Indiana?

Well, Michigan (8-1 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) will be hard-pressed to win any games when it connects on just three 3-pointers or posts a 23.3-percent mark from beyond the arc, and is in poor shape when Stauskas is held to a double-digit scoring output, as evidenced in losses to Duke in December and the Hoosiers on Sunday.

But Stauskas wasn’t alone in his ineffective outing. Horford was held scoreless and didn’t collect a single rebound in just eight minutes. Morgan scored five points, but was just 1-for-5 from the charity stripe, including a couple key front-end misses with the Wolverines trailing down the stretch. Though his 10 rebounds were a respectable figure, someone had to grab rebounds for Michigan, which was otherwise outrebounded 31-22 — eight below its season average and just two short of a season low.

Combined, the frontcourt duo’s five-point, 10-rebound outing, was the lowest-scoring output in nine conference games to date. On an afternoon with Stauskas stifled from the opening tip, the lack of scoring in the post resulted in a 63-52 loss, the Wolverines’ lowest-scoring total of the season.

“I don’t have all the answers,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Obviously if I had answers, we wouldn’t have scored 52 points.”

Through the struggles, though, Beilein saw positives. Noting that he never expected to remain undefeated throughout conference play, Beilein was quick to note that more growth comes out of losses than wins.

“We’ll address the issues we think we need to improve on,” he said on Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “We expect them to get back on the horse and keep learning. I think our staff does a great job at just framing up these games so we can grow from them.”