INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team trailed by nine points when redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan tallied his fourth foul.
With 8:55 remaining in the game, Wolverines coach John Beilein benched Morgan and replaced him with freshman Evan Smotrycz in the five spot.
The two are both about the same height, standing at six-feet, nine-inches tall. But they certainly don’t play the same.
In fact, Morgan and Smotrycz are almost polar opposites in terms of shot selection and physicality. Thus, Michigan’s offensive scheme changes dramatically when the two rotate at the five.
Illinois fell victim to that threat in the Wolverines’ 60-55 comeback win at Conseco Field House in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament on Friday.
“(Smotrycz) wasn’t real pleased with the way he played in the first half,” Beilein said. “He had a couple tough turnovers. It was really big for him. If we could make one (3-pointer), then we could stretch the big guy, stretch (Mike) Tisdale out there and change the whole game. So he hit the first one, he sort of got it in sideways with Tisdale, and then the second one was clean. Now, all of a sudden, we couldn’t get over that.”
Leading Michigan in scoring was sophomore guard Darius Morris with 17 points, and freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr. with 16. Both guards used the space they got from the ball screen on the perimeter — which almost always comes from whoever is playing the five position.
“(Morris) is so great in space and so is (Hardaway Jr.), so we like to use those two off of the ball screen,” assistant coach Jeff Meyer said. “When Smotrycz is in the game, that stretches the floor as opposed to (Morgan). Both of those kids are so important to us. It’s two different ways to attack offensively.”
The difference between Smotrycz playing in Michigan’s five spot and Morgan doing so is that Morgan typically rolls off of his screen through the lane. But after Smotrycz sets a screen, he normally finds an open spot on the perimeter and prepares to crank a 3-pointer.
It’s certainly a subtle difference, but it was a huge reason why the Wolverines came back from down 12 points with only about eight minutes left in the game.
Illinois senior Mike Tisdale usually guarded either Smotrycz or Morgan. When Morgan was in, the scouting report for Tisdale told him to expect the roll and to defend the lane. That same scouting report carried over to the times that Tisdale was defending Smotrycz. Such a dramatic difference in Michigan’s offensive mindset paralyzed the Fighting Illini’s entire defensive scheme.
“You’ve got (Smotrycz), who is just as effective as (Morgan),” Meyer said. “That gives us a different dynamic because (Morgan) is rolling to the basket so Tisdale is always defending a role guy. But then you get (Smotrycz) in there, but (Smotrycz) is popping instead. He hit two big ones for us.”
Smotrycz recorded just six points and one assist. But all of that production came in the final eight minutes of the second half — that’s when Michigan went on a 21-4 run to stun an Illinois squad that dominated the Wolverines for most of the game.
“When those two sub for each other, things are a lot different,” freshman forward Colton Christian said. “(Smotrycz) has the range out to the three. You saw with Tisdale, that when (Smotrycz) was popping off, it’s hard to guard him. That’s different than (Morgan), who likes to work off the screen and roll.”
Against Illinois, the two replaced one another because of Morgan’s foul trouble. Recently, though, Smotrycz has been coming in for Morgan before anyone else when the 240-pounder needs some breathing time. Expect this to continue to haunt defenses, as the Wolverines continue to use their versatile roster to their advantage.