Unbalanced frontcourt struggles without McGary

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 22, 2013

NEW YORK — It’s said that the lights are brighter in New York.

And in the absence of preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary, sidelined again with injuries, the bright lights shined on Michigan’s frontcourt reserves.

McGary missed the team’s first two games due to a lower-back condition, but returned before the Wolverines’ first meaningful game at Iowa State. After playing — probably through pain — in the team’s next eight games, McGary was sidelined from Saturday night’s game against Stanford in the Barclays Center.

The spotlight turned to fill-in starter, redshirt junior forward Jon Horford, but his moment in the limelight would last just 25 seconds before he picked up an early foul.

Horford exited the stage, giving way to fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan, who proceeded to pick up a foul less than a minute later. Still, the grizzled vet played until the 14:42 mark before giving way to Horford.

But Horford’s second go-around was hardly any better than the first, as was charged with his second foul just 15 seconds later. Per Michigan coach John Beilein’s policy, that meant Horford would sit for the rest of the half.

In came seldom-used redshirt sophomore forward Max Bielfeldt, who didn’t last three minutes before he picked up a foul, prompting Beilein to bring Morgan back in. Bielfeldt was charged with his second foul of the first half shortly after checking back into the game later.

And so went one of the more challenging frontcourt rotations Beilein has had to juggle, at least in recent years.

“It was going to be a very physical game from the beginning and they called it very tight,” Beilein said. “As a result, we just had to scramble.”

The entire frontcourt was scrambled so much that by the end of the game, Beilein turned to sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III — a natural small forward who has been thrust into the ‘4’ role for much of his career — and asked him if he was comfortable enough to play the ‘5.’

By that point, as Michigan clung to a two-point lead with under a minute left, Horford had already fouled out and Morgan had just picked up his fifth foul. Bielfeldt was on the bench with four fouls — perhaps being saved for a potential overtime — but Robinson made sure the game wouldn’t get there.

The Wolverines isolated Robinson’s bigger, slower defender, allowing the sophomore to make a move to the basket for a score that propelled Michigan to a much-needed, 68-65 victory.

“It’s a good thing I pay attention a little bit in practice,” Robinson joked after the game about playing out of position.

But it was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise uneven rotation for the inconsistent Wolverines frontcourt, enabled by a crew of officials that kept both teams’ benches equally off balance.

The Cardinal spent almost half of the second stanza in the bonus, though it ran into foul trouble of its own. Its starting center and top rebounder, Stefan Nastic, fouled out with more than five minutes left, and two other starters played with four fouls.

“It was one of those games where you kind of had to feel out what they were going to let you do inside and just kind of adjust,” Morgan said, but not before slyly smiling and letting out a couple of chuckles. “It might’ve been a little bit different from what we’re used to, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to change (what we do defensively).”

Bielfeldt played a season-high 12 minutes — the second-highest total in his career — but failed to score while collecting more fouls (four) than rebounds (three). He wasn’t alone in putting up similarly crooked numbers among the big men.

Morgan played one of his better games of the season, scoring eight points, but picked five rebounds to match his five fouls.

“We just had to stay ready,” Morgan said. “All three of us, we knew we’d all have an opportunity today with Mitch down. I think it was just about all of us staying ready for when that moment came.”

But no one had a rougher time with the referees’ quick whistles than Horford, who has never been able to shake his propensity to get in foul trouble.

“Jon has had a habit of putting his hands forward and that’s going to be a foul,” Beilein said. “That’s why when Jon was in the game, he wasn’t in there very long.”

And that was putting it lightly. Horford finished without a single rebound and had just two points in six minutes. At one point midway through the second half, he had totaled four fouls in a mere two minutes of playtime.

At the postgame press conference, Beilein was asked if the thought of inserting freshman Mark Donnal, who is slated to redshirt, ever crossed his mind.

“Never,” Beilein said.

But the fact that the question was asked spoke volumes about the way the game played out. Because in the bright lights of the big city, every decision and every outcome is highlighted.