March 22, 2014 at 9:13 am

Michigan vs. Texas: 5:15 p.m., CBS/WWJ

Michigan must find a way to deal with size of Texas

Bob Wojnowski and Rod Beard preview Michigan-Texas
Bob Wojnowski and Rod Beard preview Michigan-Texas: Bob Wojnowski and Rod Beard of The Detroit News preview the Michigan-Texas NCAA Tournament game.

Milwaukee — Some obstacles are bigger than others, and naturally, Texas is big. Not obnoxiously Texas-sized big, but definitely big. The Longhorns are big enough to present problems, especially if you need to go through them, or around them.

Michigan would rather just shoot over them and be done with it. When they battle tonight for a spot in the Sweet 16, it’ll be a clash of styles and a mash of flesh. Michigan brings more offensive style, while Texas will haul in the flesh.

To advance in the Tournament, you must do more than you’re used to doing, and this will be a test of Michigan’s ability to use different tools, so to speak.

“Being the hammer instead of the nail is not natural to a lot of people,” John Beilein said Friday. “We’ve gotta somehow make up for that and find a way to move them out of there.”

In other words, don’t bring a paint brush to a hammer fight. Michigan isn’t used to hammering in the paint, or rebounding with ferocity. But the center tandem of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford — Morford, as it’s called — actually has performed very well since Mitch McGary was lost to back surgery. They see Texas’ 6-foot-9, 285ish-pound Cameron Ridley, 6-8 Jonathan Holmes, 6-9 Connor Lammert and 6-10 Prince Ibeh, and they understand the question. With their array of shifty scorers, the Wolverines can hang, no problem. But can they bang?

“I don’t know if you can say I’m looking forward to it, but somebody’s gotta do it,” said Morgan, 6-8, 250 pounds. “You gotta use what you have as an advantage. I got speed on my side and I just try to keep moving, keep running them up the court and try not to get into a wrestling match with them.”

Strength vs. strength

Luckily for Michigan, there won’t be any turnbuckles on the floor. It’s also fortunate everything the Wolverines do well — shoot 3-pointers, shoot free throws, pass the ball —the Longhorns don’t do so well.

There’s a reason Texas lost 10 games — including a 92-78 home thrashing by Michigan State — and dropped five of eight heading into the Tournament. There’s also a reason Rick Barnes has his team back in contention, after going 16-18 a year ago. The Longhorns defend and rebound maniacally, then block shots just for fun.

Holmes is their leader but Ridley is the touted sophomore now licking his basketball chops after dropping about 35 pounds. The big fella is so soft-spoken, you can barely hear him, but you can’t miss him.

“It excites me in a way, because I’m sure I can outrebound them,” Ridley said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to force anything that might get me in foul trouble.”

That’s precisely where the Wolverines would like to put him, if they can avoid it themselves. As much as we focus on Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert, the season was saved by Morford, in many ways. Michigan was 6-4 when McGary went out, and since then, Morgan and Horford have combined to average 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds, while shooting 69 percent.

Morgan has been especially valuable. In the past 21 games, he’s shooting 73 percent, and he had another double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds, in the opener against Wofford. While some assumed Michigan would wither without McGary, Morford simply went to work, the most-unheralded element of the team.

It’s also vital tonight for the 6-6 Robinson and the guards to attack the lane and help on the boards. This is the game you’d think McGary would truly be missed, but as the lone senior, Morgan carries the chip and doesn’t care how heavy it is.

“To be honest, I love it when people tell us what we can’t do,” Morgan said. “That’s something people have done all my life. When everybody starts talking about what Michigan can’t do, it’s fun to start proving people wrong and make them look stupid.”

Size matters

Michigan made a few people look clueless while rolling to the Big Ten title, but it didn’t face many rugged frontlines like Texas. Michigan State probably came the closest, and in the non-conference, Florida State had a mammoth center in 7-1 Michael Ojo. The Wolverines beat the Seminoles 82-80 in overtime.

Someone asked Horford if Ridley is as big as he’s seen, and he thought hard about it.

“Ojo is probably the biggest human being on earth, ridiculously big,” Horford said. “(Former Spartan) A young Derrick Nix, in his high school days, might’ve been around 330. You feel like you’re at a disadvantage, but you keep your hands up and wall up and make them shoot over a walled chest. It’s amazing what a walled chest will do.”

We’ll take Horford’s word on that. But there’s no doubt about the Longhorns’ intentions. They play recklessly and shoot haphazardly (32 percent on 3-pointers) but led the Big 12 in rebounding and blocked 198 shots (compared to Michigan’s 83). Most impressive, they average 15 offensive rebounds, and if they’re gobbling up everything, that’s trouble for the Wolverines.

Big trouble? A few months ago, maybe. But the way Morford has morphed, the Wolverines don’t view any task or any team as too big to topple.

Jonathan Holmes
240 pounds

Texas big men Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes made life tough for Jordan Bachynski of Arizona State in an 87-85 victory Thursday night. / Mike McGinnis / Getty Images
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