Must. Slow. Him. Down.
Safe to say there's a big game in Bloomington tomorrow. Not only will this game be played before a national audience on Super Bowl Eve in the highest ranked matchup in the history of Assembly Hall, but it will also determine 1st place in the Big Ten standings, the #1 ranking, and perhaps the building of some big momentum going into the heavy conference stretch. One of the key pieces of the matchup will be the play of the frontcourt. In short, Jon Horford is a guy I see as having to play a big game, especially defensively, if Michigan can pull it out.
With Jordan Morgan likely still hobbled with an ankle injury, Horford and Mitch McGary the difficult task of guarding one of the best players in the nation, Cody Zeller. Zeller may have been overhyped during the offseason, but he still possesses a number of skills that make him one of the best players in the country.
The first and perhaps most unique ability for Zeller is his ability to run the court. There are many athletic big men around the country that can move in transition, but there may be none that can do it better than Zeller. A 7'0" player that can outrun players that are 5 or 6 inches shorter than him is almost unheard of in college basketball. For a team like Indiana that likes to play uptempo basketball, he is the perfect fit.
Zeller has also developed a solid low post game that can do some serious damage. His body isn't big enough to physically overpower some of the country's more physical frontcourts like Minnesota and MSU, but he has certainly been able to do a lot of damage so far this year. A good portion of this comes through the transition game, but the development of his low post game has given him another dimension to his game that has allowed him to become more consistent.
Will the task for Horford be a big one? Of course it will. However, he's looked great coming back from his minor knee injury and has been steadily improving, especially defensively. He is blocking shots, stopping drives to the basket, and shutting down the low post game of opponents. Plus, Horford can run the court. Maybe not as well as Zeller, but he has the skill set to at least slow him down.
Michigan has already faced a few uptempo teams this season and though none were as talented as the Hoosiers, Michigan at least has some experience against an uptempo attack. One of the most common ways teams adjust for this type of play is to have the backcourt play very deep on the offensive end. Essentially, be prepared to get on defense as soon as a shot goes off on the offensive side. If Michigan decides to do this, they will probably have some of their backcourt players like Hardaway or Burke do this. Stu Douglass did this a lot when he was at Michigan and there's no reason to think a player like Hardaway couldn't do it as well. It will put more pressure on the bigs for offensive rebounds, but stifling the transition attack should be the primary concern coming off a shot in this game.
Horford is defensively capable of minimizing the damage done by Zeller and keep pressure on Indiana's backcourt to outplay Michigan's, which may be the best in the country. No single player or position can win or lose a game, but for Michigan's game on Saturday night, Horford could be the most important individual piece.