The Big Ten season hadn't even started yet, and Michigan coach John Beilein was already faced with life without star big man Mitch McGary.
Then he watched Glenn Robinson III go down early in the first half of the conference opener against Minnesota, and suddenly things looked even more bleak. That's when Jon Horford stepped in and delivered a performance that would make his big brother proud to help the Wolverines to a stirring victory.
Horford scored a career-high 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds to help Michigan withstand Robinson's loss and beat Minnesota 63-60 on Thursday night.
"It's always 'next man up' and we have parts that we can put in to the machine," said Horford, the younger brother of Atlanta Hawks versatile big man Al Horford. "Put them in, keep it running."
Zak Irvin scored 15 points on five 3-pointers for the Wolverines (9-4, 1-0), who lost Robinson to an injured left ankle. McGary is out indefinitely after having surgery on his lower back.
The severity or nature of Robinson's injury is still unknown, as is his status for the game on Sunday against Northwestern.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get him ready for Sunday," Beilein said.
Elliott Eliason had 10 points and 10 rebounds for Minnesota (11-3, 0-1). Andre Hollins had 12 points and five boards and the Golden Gophers grabbed 15 offensive rebounds. But they missed six free throws and Austin Hollins missed eight of his nine shots.
With Robinson out, Horford's toughness inside lifted the Wolverines in a tense final five minutes. His dunk in traffic with 1:54 to play that gave Michigan a 57-54 lead.
Malik Smith hit a 3-pointer with 27.3 seconds to play that cut the deficit to 60-57 and his three free throws made it 61-60 Michigan with 5.6 seconds to play. But Nik Stauskas hit a pair of free throws and Dre Mathieu's 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
"You hate to learn the hard way, but sometimes it's the best way to learn," said Eliason, who was limited to 10 minutes in the second half because of foul trouble. "You get a lead, you can't let up your defense, anything. They're going to keep coming at you."
Stauskas had 14 points and seven assists and Horford made six of his eight shots for Michigan. The redshirt junior has struggled occasionally to live up to the standards set by his big brother, and Beilein said he has tried to find "smooth air."
"There's always a bump here or there, foul trouble, whether it's been injuries," Beilein said. "He's just looking for playing time, and get through some of those things. Find a different elevation where he can play. And he made some really nice plays today."
The Wolverines are coming off a Final Four appearance, and Robinson and McGary both came back looking for more.
Robinson rose up and emphatically swatted a layup attempt from Mathieu, but appeared to come down awkwardly on his leg. He hobbled around for two more possessions, but had to leave the game and walk gingerly to the locker room for further examination.
Without the super-athletic Robinson prowling the paint, Eliason went to work.
He scored the first six points of the second half for Minnesota and created second chance after second chance with some dogged offensive rebounding. His layup gave Minnesota a 36-30 lead four minutes into the second half, but Michigan charged back.
Walton, Jr. hit a 3-pointer and a couple of free throws, Irvin hit another 3 and Jordan Morgan swished a hook shot to put the Wolverines up 40-39.
That set up a thrilling back-and-forth final 12 minutes.
The Gophers led 45-44 on a 3-pointer by Smith, but Horford had a jumper and a putback to give Michigan a 53-49 lead with 4:15 to go.
The Gophers were never able to wrestle the lead back in another disappointing start to conference play.
Once again, the Gophers feasted on a billowy soft nonconference schedule to inflate their win total before the rugged Big Ten began. They lost games to Syracuse and Arkansas at the Maui Invitational and did post solid wins over Florida State and at Richmond before opening their first conference season under new coach Richard Pitino.
There were plenty of good seats available early at Williams Arena, with the early start time, frigid weather and the wariness that comes from seeing the Gophers constantly disappoint in Big Ten play all likely factoring into the equation.
Minnesota turned it over 16 times, three in the final two minutes as they tried to come back.
"They stepped up," Pitino said. "You've got to give them credit. They won the game. We didn't lose the game."