Wolverines Limping into Conference Play
If you missed the headlines earlier, star big man Mitch McGary is scheduled to have back surgery and is likely to miss the rest of the season. As if getting over the losses of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. from last year’s team wasn’t enough of a hurdle for the team to climb, Michigan could be without another talented two-some for the time being.
Robinson’s ankle injury came in the second half of Thursday’s game. His absence then opened the door for junior Jon Horford and freshman Zak Irvin. Horford played a season high 30 minutes and scored a career best 14 points on 6-8 shooting while adding 9 rebounds and 2 steals. Irvin dropped in 15 points on 5-8 shooting, all three pointers. It was his second best offensive output on the season after his 24 points and 6 threes against Coppin State on November 29th.
The Wolverines forced the Gophers into 15 turnovers and 39% field goals, helping to make up for the fact that Minnesota really controlled the boards, with a 38 to 24 rebounding advantage. Luckily Horford was able to fill in as best as he could for McGary’s strong rebounding presence, grabbing over a third of the team’s total rebounds, but with a number of big, physical teams ahead on the Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines will have to be prepared to play the boards more effectively as a team.
One thing we know about Michigan, whether Robinson returns soon or not, is that they’re one of the most dangerous shooting teams in the country. Leading scorer Nik Stauskas has hit 30 of his 65 three point attempts on the year, while Irvin has hit 27 of 63, and head coach John Beilein’s offense is orchestrated in such a way that his hot shooters always find ways to get open.
The biggest questions at this point are whether the combination of Horford and the team’s only senior Jordan Morgan can keep opposing teams off the glass and whether the talented, but young set of guards can mature fast enough to help lead a solid run in Big Ten conference play. Freshman Derrick Walton Jr. has shown signs of becoming an elite NCAA point guard but he’s been very on-and-off as a scorer, only shooting 40.7% from the field. 6’6” versatile guard Caris LeVert has made great strides this year but has still been incredibly inconsistent all around. And Sophomore Spike Albrecht provides a great lift off the bench but he’s just as inconsistent as the other two without as much natural talent.
The first segment of Michigan’s conference schedule isn’t too rough. After hosting Northwestern this Sunday, the Wolverines travel to Nebraska and then return home to face Penn State. But after that, the going gets quite a bit tougher with a three-game stretch that includes road games against Wisconsin and Michigan State and a home game against Iowa. In the back half of the conference schedule, they’ll play each of those three teams again, along with two games against Indiana and a road game against Ohio State.
Despite the injuries and the absence of Burke and Hardaway Jr., the team still has plenty of talent and behind Beilein, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Wolverines heading to another NCAA Tournament in March.