Horford has high hopes for new season

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It had been a less than glorious freshman basketball season for Jon Horford.

He'd played in 29 games for the Wolverines but averaged less than seven minutes. Horford was skinny, and even at 6-foot-9 he wasn't much of a force in the post, averaging only two points and two rebounds.

Even though he finished the season second on the team with 11 blocked shots -- eight shy of Jordan Morgan, who had played more than four times as much -- Horford had problems fighting for a spot on the inside. He was up against the more experienced Morgan and Blake McLimans in coach John Beilein's four-guard offense.

But after the team had exited the NCAA Tournament, returned to Ann Arbor and life had settled down, Horford set up a meeting with the coaching staff.

"Jon came in and had the courage to meet with our staff last spring and expressed a desire to earn more opportunities," assistant coach Bacari Alexander said.

What the coaches told Horford was obvious: Continue working hard.

"He's got to earn his way onto the court, and he understands that," Beilein said. "He never wanted anything for free. He just wants to earn his way onto the court."

Horford was like most freshmen. He had raw talent, but he was still catching up to the speed of the college game. He was making silly mistakes, racking up 40 fouls in his limited playing time.

"It's not easy," Horford said of the transition from high school to college basketball. "I can't sit here and say it's not difficult. But you pick it up."

Because of the meeting, Horford decided to enroll in spring and summer classes. He lived in the dorms, but he spent most of his free time in the gym with the strength and conditioning coaches. At the advice of the staff, and in an effort to gain weight, Horford also dramatically changed his diet. He began eating four to five meals a day, with snacks between his meals.

And when he wasn't in Ann Arbor, Horford spent time training in Atlanta and Kentucky with his older brother Al, a center with the Atlanta Hawks. Al started at Florida for the Gators' NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007.

As a result, Jon returned to Ann Arbor this fall 30 pounds heavier, weighing in at a team-high 250 pounds. It was the biggest body transformation Alexander had seen a player go through in just a summer. And players were surprised to see the difference as well.

"I think the game's starting to slow down for him a little bit," senior guard Zack Novak said of Horford. "The kid, he's got one of the best work ethics out of anybody I've seen since I've been here. He's determined, really focused. I think he will improve continuously the whole time he's here."

Already, coaches have seen that improvement and change in Horford's on-floor demeanor.

"It's been exciting to watch him go on the floor and not get pushed around like he did last season," Alexander said.

Beilein said he's now working with Horford to make the sophomore a more balanced player, and he is waiting to see how Horford fits into what the team will be.

"He has a chance to be our best rebounder, we know that," Beilein said. "He probably has a chance to be our best shot blocker. He's probably got our best length of anybody. So he has three pretty good things going his way."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @chanteljennings.