Mitch McGary underwent back surgery on Tuesday, which in early December seemed as though it would be a death sentence for any chance the Michigan basketball team had at winning a Big Ten conference title. Thanks to the recent development of a pair of freshmen and the Wolverines' two most important players, those hopes have not dissipated quite yet.
Losing a preseason All-American, especially one who averaged a double-double in last season's NCAA tournament, will not be easy to overcome. McGary was much more to Michigan than just a walking double-double, though. The two biggest things he gave the Wolverines were energy and hustle plays.
There is no substitute for a player like that.
However, veteran big men Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan have proven, at least in the short term, they can combine to replicate McGary from a statistical standpoint. The duo averaged 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds over the past four games.
Whether or not both can continue to produce that kind of effort once the Wolverines get into the meat of their Big Ten schedule remains to be seen. Still, Horford and Morgan appear capable of making positive contributions at both ends of the floor.
ESPN analyst Tim McCormick believes the two will hold up just fine, according to an interview conducted by John Borton of TheWolverine.com.
I don't think you're going to see them both put up big numbers in the same game, but there's a very good chance that you can expect one or the other to get double-figures scoring on a game-by-game basis...They will do the job very well. These are veteran players who have played a lot. They've gone head-to-head with [Trevor] Mbakwe. They've played big games against Jared Sullinger. They are experienced, veteran guys.
Further bolstering Michigan's title hopes are freshmen Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.
The game appears to be slowing down for Walton, who has been the starting point guard since the start of the 2013-14 campaign. In particular, head coach John Beilein referenced his performances against Minnesota and Northwestern as signs of how far he has come.
"What I do like is he was creating more either for himself [or a teammate] and doing it efficiently," Beilein said, according to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. "Sometimes you can mistake activity for achievement. He was doing things before that weren't conducive to finding open men."
"Now he’s doing that and, at the same time, he’s finding spot where he can score. He and Zak [Irvin], the game is slowing down for them as we go in to the second semester."
In the Wolverines' two Big Ten games, Walton has 18 points, five assists, seven rebounds and is shooting 50 percent from the field. There will still be more bumps along the way, especially once Jan. 18 arrives and the schedule becomes more daunting, but his improvement is a great sign for Michigan.
Beilein: Walton has to make quick decisions all game long... From Bacari Alexadner, was like talking to a person drowning... Now can swim— Mark Snyder (@Mark__Snyder) January 7, 2014
Meanwhile, Irvin has caught fire shooting the rock and looks like the sixth man the Wolverines have been searching for since the start of the season.
Ever since his sluggish 3-of-14 effort against Charlotte, the former 5-star prospect has been very efficient from beyond the arc. He went 22-of-44 from three-point range and reached double figures four times over the past eight contests.
Given the fact sophomore shooting guard Nik Stauskas is becoming less perimeter-oriented with each game, Irvin knocking down treys is vital to Michigan's conference championship aspirations.
Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III appear capable of carrying this team through the gauntlet that is the Big Ten. The former is leading the team in assists (3.6 per game), scoring (17.8 points) and is shooting 48.5 percent from the field. Oh, and he is averaging nearly seven free-throw attempts per contest.
After slipping down NBA draft boards early in the season, Robinson is on the rise. He poured in 20 points against No. 1 Arizona, 17 points in a win over Stanford, 23 points in a rout of Holy Cross and 12 points in making six of 12 attempts against Northwestern. Four blocks and an effortless reverse two-handed dunk highlighted his freakish athleticism before he departed the Minnesota game early with an ankle injury.
Where will Michigan finish in the Big Ten?
Down to brass tacks now, though. Is Michigan better off without McGary? Absolutely not.
Can the Wolverines still contend in the Big Ten without him? You bet.
Everyone is looking up at Michigan State right now. Ohio State and Wisconsin are stout defensively, which has been troublesome for Michigan, while Iowa is as up-tempo and high-scoring as any team in the country.
There is still plenty of talent in Ann Arbor, and it will take more than a few fortunate bounces for the Wolverines to actually win the Big Ten. Do not count Michigan out of this discussion, though. It will certainly push the top teams in the conference and be a factor in the title race until the very end.
Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam