If “bigger, faster, stronger” is the goal, then the Michigan basketball team’s frontcourt took care of the “bigger” and “stronger” parts this summer.
Four of Michigan’s big men are coming off their first year of experience and used the offseason as an opportunity to bulk up, preparing to bang with the biggest of the Big Ten this season.
Sophomore forwards Jon Horford and Evan Smotrycz, in particular, return to the renovated Crisler Arena with more than just the lessons from last season.
Horford, now 250 pounds, came back 28 pounds heavier than he was when the Wolverines fell to Duke in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament in March. Smotrycz, now 235 pounds, brought back 36 pounds to Ann Arbor — thanks to some steak, broccoli and cheese casserole and vanilla cake with chocolate frosting.
“(Strength and conditioning) coach (Jon) Sanderson put a plan together for me,” Smotrycz said. “My mom was cooking all my favorite stuff, I was working out six days a week. I think that all came together and I put it all on.”
Michigan also returns its leading low-post scorer and rebounder in redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan, as well as sophomore Colton Christian and junior Blake McLimans. Six-foot-eight freshman Max Bielfeldt will also contribute some size. Morgan will likely start alongside Smotrycz, with Horford seeing significant minutes.
Assistant coach Bacari Alexander said he is excited about what Horford’s and Smotrycz’s weight gains can add on the offensive end and on the glass.
“You look at a person’s ability to rebound the basketball when you talk about added strength,” Alexander said. “I think adding that dimension, you get a guy that becomes a statsheet stuffer.”
Alexander said that Smotrycz’s added weight also allows him to initiate and welcome contact, yet he still has the chance to knock down shots.
As for Horford, Alexander said he hasn’t seen a body transformation over an offseason like that of the 6-foot-9 sophomore.
“I think you’ll find a young man who’s going to settle into what college basketball is all about,” Alexander said. “Oftentimes, they come in from that summer into freshman year thinking they invested all the things they should have to be prepared for those moments. I think what Jon will do this year, I think you’ll see him on the court and he’ll have a sureness about himself, and I think his productivity will go up as he sees longer stretches of minutes.”
An area Michigan’s big men will need to improve on is their rebounding. Last year, guard Zack Novak led the team in rebounding and Morgan was the only big man in the top five. Morgan pulled down 5.4 boards per game last year, and the next highest totals from the post players were Smotrycz’s 2.3 and Horford’s 2.0.
“We need to grab a lot more rebounds, and it’s probably one of my main goals to help out with the rebounding and do the dirty work,” Horford said. “Novak’s a good rebounder, especially for his size, but it’s definitely time for a big man to step up and lead the team in rebounding.”
And with at least a year of experience under the belt of all the post players except Bielfeldt, Michigan can expect more fluidity, as the guys know the offense and can be more comfortable in it. Whereas Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue all lost a prominent post presence to graduation, the lack of moving parts for the Wolverines could be a distinct advantage, especially at the beginning of conference play.
“As far as the workouts, we’ve already been through it,” Christian said. “It’s getting slowed down a lot more, because as a freshman everything is so much faster with trying to read ball screens and trying to remember the plays. So far, things are slowed down a lot more and we’re starting to understand the offense better.”
Although the year of experience should help the frontcourt’s progression, the absence of a bonafide point guard could hurt. Last year, then-sophomore Darius Morris, who left school early for the NBA, was able to create opportunities off the dribble and get the big men easy points with dump offs and pick-and-rolls.
But the new point guard — whether it’s senior co-captain Stu Douglass or freshmen Trey Burke or Carlton Brundidge — won’t have the physical presence that Morris had.
“One of the things that Darius’s length allowed is him to see a lot of people that others can’t see,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “For our guards right now, Stu, Trey and Carlton, that is a challenge because they’re not as tall. But they do have very good vision on the perimeter.”
A rapport with the point guards can come with time, size cannot. And that could pose a “big” problem for opponents.