In the upset of Wisconsin, Jon Horford, left, and Jordan Morgan combined for 12 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. (Tony Ding / Associated Press)
Ann Arbor — For most teams, losing an All-America big man would be a crushing blow.
For Michigan coach John Beilein, it’s just another bump in the road.
Despite losing Mitch McGary to back surgery — potentially for the remainder of the season — the Wolverines have found a way to flourish, winning all nine games that McGary has missed, including the last seven in a row.
Among the victories was last weekend’s upset at then-No. 3 Wisconsin, aided by the play of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, who combined for 12 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks.
“That was the best Jordan Morgan has rebounded and he got traffic rebounds that he wasn’t getting when he had a bad ankle or feeling as comfortable as he is right now,” Beilein said after the game. “It was really good to have those two come out and give us the minutes they did.”
Beilein has tried to split the minutes between Morgan and Horford evenly, provided one doesn’t need a break. He said assistant Bacari Alexander has worked with them on just being steady and not trying to do too much.
“The game doesn’t have to be really complex — catch the ball and get it in the basket,” Beilein said. “Get your body on the man; keep the ball away from them and put it in.
“Both have embraced that role on the team.”
With McGary out during nonconference, there was some preparation made for a short-term absence. But that turned into a long-term concern after the loss to No. 1 Arizona on Dec. 14.
“I don’t know if there was any adjustment other than the consistency of who was at the center position,” Beilein said. “We didn’t have him and we were moving in one direction knowing he would be back in about a month or so. And then when he came back, we tried to do a little bit of both.
“Now there’s just consistency and people have been in their roles for over a month. It’s been five weeks since he played a game. So we’ve had five weeks to just get a rhythm among who’s playing, where they’re playing, how they’re playing and who we’re playing.”
Morgan and Horford have managed to exceed those levels.
In the last seven games, they’ve combined for 15.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. At Minnesota, Horford had a career-high 14 points and added nine rebounds; at Nebraska, Morgan had a season-high 15 points.
More than their own numbers, Beilein credits Morgan and Horford with running the offense, deciphering the reads in the pick-and-roll sets and making the right decisions.
“The pick-and-roll looks so simple and it’s so complex sometimes, with a couple feet over here, a hook pass, a bounce pass,” Beilein said. “Those guys are more experienced at this point in getting that. When Mitch first got here, he was less anxious to run to the basket and be a vacuum to clear everybody out.”
“(McGary) was getting very good at that last year in March and at the beginning of this year. They’ve got 1,000 more reps than Mitch has.”
Morgan is averaging 6.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 102 career starts.
“Morgan was really good at rolling to the basket and when he rolls hard — sometimes even harder than McGary — he’s a threat,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Monday. “When he’s a threat, people sag in from the side.”
Beilein said McGary hasn’t begun rehabilitation on his injured back but continues to rest.
“From what we understand, there’s not a rehab program for several weeks except rest,” Beilein said Tuesday on WTKA.
“He won’t be traveling with us or sitting in airplanes or on the bench for a little bit because there’s limited times he’s supposed to sit during the day.”
While McGary appears to be looking to get back into the swing of things, Beilein wants him to wait.
“We saw him last week and he grabbed a basketball right away,” Beilein said.
“We said, ‘Put the ball away. Stand there and do nothing — we want you to get healthy.’ At some point, he’ll rejoin the team.
“Right now, he needs to rest before he begins his rehab.”