Michigan coach John Beilein didn’t necessarily foresee sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz breaking out of his slump Sunday against Illinois.
Smotrycz, who entered the game shooting an abysmal 23.5 percent from 3-point range, wasn’t even shooting well in practice throughout the week.
But Beilein saw something, prompting him to believe Smotrycz might’ve been primed to reverse his downward trend.
“I just noticed Evan … really had a good week of practice without a lot of success,” Beilein said. “He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but his energy was tremendous. I think he understands that if things are going tough for you, a positive attitude is essential, and he’s really had that this week.”
Smotrycz scored 12 first-half points, making Beilein look like a smart man.
“We have been waiting for that, and you all have been waiting for that,” Beilein joked to the media. “We needed that, and it was almost like a shot in the arm. It propelled our defense and (gave us) a little bit of a lead.”
Against Nebraska last Wednesday, Smotrycz’s poor shooting in practice, combined with a strong performance from redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan, resulted in the Reading, Mass. native playing just 13 minutes. His limited action off the bench was a far cry from December, when he was a starter averaging nearly a double-double.
But while Smotrycz was riding the pine in Lincoln, his bench mate, junior guard Matt Vogrich, was busy breaking out of a slump of his own. Vogrich entered the contest shooting 30 percent from long range, but in just 11 minutes, he lit up the Bob Devaney Sports Center with three 3-pointers.
Beilein chose to ride the hot shooting of his guard on Sunday, giving Vogrich 18 minutes of play time — just three short his season-high, which came in a blowout over Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
Once again, Beilein’s coaching instincts proved correct, as Vogrich knocked down all three of his field goals, including two 3-pointers.
“It’s really good to see him going, because he’s such a good shooter,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “The fact that he hadn’t made a lot was kind of puzzling. We knew that he was so much better than that, and he’s showing what kind of player he really is right now.”
Added Beilein: “We had Matt come off (the bench) with some swagger. He doesn’t get many shots in the game, (but he still came) off with swagger.”
The bench — which has been particularly quiet while Smotrycz and Vogrich slumped and sophomore forward Jon Horford remained sidelined with an injury — came up “huge” in Novak’s eyes.
The bench’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time. Morgan picked up his second foul early in the first half, forcing him to sit for almost 17 minutes of the opening stanza. Novak later found himself in foul trouble, so the bench was relied upon to fend off the Fighting Illini.
“That’s all I talked about (in the locker room) because that was badly needed,” Beilein said. “It gives us a lot of extra minutes that you hope that you prove to be valuable at this time of the year.”
Illinois flooded the post and forced Morgan off the floor — a tactic Michigan will likely encounter in postseason play. Smotrycz’s strong play, along with Vogrich’s ability to score in bunches, instilled confidence in their teammates.
“I’m definitely better at staying out of foul trouble than I was last year, but you’re going to have games like that,” Morgan said. “You’re going to have games where your starters are going to be in foul trouble and you need to be able to have people come off the bench, like Matt Vogrich and Evan Smotrycz, that are going to pick your team up.”
Smotrycz and Vogrich were joined by sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who also caught fire over the weekend. The Wolverines are seemingly firing on all cylinders, and doing so at the right time, with March just around the corner. Beilein offered a rare glimpse at the future, should Michigan’s reserves continue to play like they did this past weekend.
“If we get that type of bench production, we can keep winning at a pretty high pace.”