Redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan won the opening tip-off. And then everything fell apart — for both him and his partner in the post, sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz.
On the game’s opening possession, the ball was immediately dumped down low to Morgan, whose size posed a mismatch for Bradley’s smaller post player.
But Morgan’s shot was rejected right back into his face. No problem, though, because he corralled the ball and put it right back up. But again, the ball was swatted right back into Morgan’s face.
After being denied twice, Morgan had the wherewithal to collect himself — and the ball — and dumped it to an open Smotrycz.
But Smotrycz missed. This time, Morgan wasn’t there to grab another rebound. Instead, just moments later on the defensive end, Smotrycz picked up a foul.
With just 33 seconds ticked off the clock, the Wolverines’ starting post players were a combined 0-for-3 shooting. And before many of Michigan’s fans had found their seats in Crisler Arena, Smotrycz was forced to take his own seat — on the bench.
“With one foul, I sort of made up my mind a little bit with him and (Morgan),” said Michigan coach John Beilein, acknowledging Michigan’s shallow forward depth thanks to the absence of injured sophomore forward Jon Horford. “They get one (foul), they need to come out for a little.”
By halftime, the Wolverines slumped to the locker room after what players and Beilein described as possibly the most frustrating first-half performance of the season. Heavily favored, Michigan was tied with the Braves, who were out-rebounding the Wolverines 26-18, including a stunning nine offensive boards. The pair in the post combined for just eight points and six rebounds.
But the second half proved to be a different story. By the game’s end, Smotrycz and Morgan were the point men in Michigan’s 77-66 win, despite the Wolverines shooting just 32 percent from 3-point range.
“(Morgan’s) first two shots were blocked and I’m thinking ‘Oh no,’ but he fought through all that,” Beilein said. “He’s really working hard at this, to have more of a positive approach to go onto the next play. And that was a big thing for him today.”
Morgan finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. And after the first two shots, he recovered to connect on seven of his final 10 chances.
Smotrycz’s shooting was the storyline entering the game — and he didn’t disappoint. He picked up a double-double, with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
After shooting a combined 7-for-9 from 3-point range in the last two games, Smotrycz drained 5-of-7 shots from deep Thursday night, bringing his three-game average to an astounding 75 percent.
“The basket is like the ocean for him right now, so every time he’s open, we know to give it to him and we know he’s going to knock it down,” said sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “These nights are just him and he’s doing a great job at stepping up to the plate.”
Since gaining more than 30 pounds over the offseason, much has been made of Smotrycz’s versatility. The sophomore poses a mismatch with his ability to stretch defenses with his shooting range, but not be overplayed on the perimeter, given his strength and ability to take the ball inside.
Smotrycz, though, struggled early in the season, and as a reflection, Michigan’s offense seemed stagnant. But as his game has picked up, so has the rest of the offense.
“Early in the year, he was not quite playing at the level he’s played at the last several weeks and that’s why (Michigan) went from pretty good to all of a sudden really good,” said Bradley coach Geno Ford. “It gives them a four-man that just stretches you, and he’s big and he’s hard to get to on some of those overages.
“He’s not standing at the 3-point line, he’s spotted up at the NBA 3-point line, and the second you start inching towards him — which you’re going to do because he’s making shots — it opens it up more for Morgan. Those guys work well together.”
So given Beilein’s offensive reputation, Smotrycz’s shooting must’ve been the focus of Beilein’s praise for the Reading, Mass. native after the game, right?
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, but as we all can see — I think we all knew he could shoot coming in here — it’s the rebounds and it’s the rebounds that are below the rim (that impressed me the most),” Beilein said. “When you have a five that can shoot it’s a big difference in the game. You really open the floor.
“He does that when he’s in there. But last year when we did that, we would be giving up rebounds. He played a lot in the second half as a five man and we did not give up the rebounds.”
With Big Ten play set to start next week, coaches will scratch their heads over ways to shut down Michigan’s suddenly strong offensive threat from its post players. But just ask Smotrycz, who was quick to note the key to the offense.
“My teammates have been doing a great job penetrating,” Smotrycz said. “I’ve just been lucky enough to knock down some open ones.
“All the credit definitely goes to the guys who are penetrating.”