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"It was fun to start the game off like that," Jordan Morgan said, eyes still welled from an emotional night. "I'd done enough reminiscing and getting all soft."
Morgan had tears in his eyes when he held his jersey aloft in the pregame Senior Day ceremony. The "soft" stuff then took a hiatus until postgame. Michigan's lone senior scored the team's first three baskets en route to his fifth career double-double and first of the season.
Morgan's hard work kept the Wolverines in the game while their man-to-man defense faltered, allowing Indiana to hit their first nine shots from the field. He took advantage of Indiana switching picks early, attacking guards on the block and keeping possessions alive with his rebounding. He set the tone for the team's eventual comeback.
"Nobody puts in more time in the gym than Jordan Morgan," John Beilein said during the postgame ceremony, with confetti streaming down on his head and two-thirds of a Crisler net in his hand. "He deserved everything he got tonight."
The elephant in the room, however, is that two of Michigan's other stars may have also just played their last game in the Crisler Center. Nik Stauskas scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half, getting to the rim at will against Yogi Ferrell and his Hoosier cohorts. When he cut down his piece of the net, Stauskas paused for a moment, then saluted the crowd; if it wasn't a goodbye, it sure felt like one.
Glenn Robinson III may also make the leap to the NBA next season. If so, he went out in style, capping off a 20-point night with a corner three—off a drive-and-dish from Stauskas—that gave Michigan a three-point lead with 1:08 remaining. He'd missed 15 of his previous 17 three-point attempts; when it came down to crunch time, however, he didn't hesitate to rise and fire.
While Michigan couldn't prevent Indiana from getting quality looks, a switch to the 1-3-1 in the second half provided them just enough defense to come away with the win. The turnover-prone Hoosiers coughed up the rock just three times in the first half. After Beilein's adjustment, they committed 12 turnovers in the second half alone. That proved critical in conjunction with Michigan's six total turnovers and 11-6 edge in offensive rebounds; they needed every last extra possession to squeeze out this victory.
Caris LeVert played a huge role in that as the disruptive force at the top of the zone, coming away with two steals in addition to his 13 points and four rebounds. The rest of the team had a relatively quiet night—Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, Jon Horford, and Spike Albrecht combined for 15 points, with none scoring more than four apiece.
In the end, it was just enough for Michigan to secure a 15-3 Big Ten record, as well as defeating every Big Ten squad for the first time since 1992. After the game, Morgan's emotions were apparent as he discussed what tonight meant to him.
"You talk about five years worth of emotions wrapped up into one day. So much work, sweat, and adversity that went into putting this program where it is, just years and years of battling, just a constant battle for five years—no matter what it is, whether it's on the court or off the court. It's the culmination of all that."
"I love playing with these guys, they're some of the best teammates..."
Morgan trailed off.
"It's been an amazing year."
He caught himself.
Those Who Stay Will Be Champions, only we know that's not true. Maybe it's true in some metaphorical sense, but in terms of the record books, many have stayed and left empty-handed. Decades worth of seniors have walked off the court on Senior Day to a warm applause and a chanted name, but with neither rings on their fingers nor banners in the rafters. Fans faithfully applauded their play, their effort, and their loyalty. And they did so with genuine appreciation, but often with a vague sense of sadness. Not pity, of course; these were proud warriors who each left their marks on the program in their own ways. But sadness nonetheless.
Most college athletes also don't get the chance to walk off the court on their own terms. Some early-entrants get to choose when to move on, but for the majority their time in uniform is determined by the ticking clock of NCAA eligibility. From the day they step on campus, time ticks away, and wherever they are when it hits zero, that's the end. For the kids who have been put upon by the cruelties of college athletics, whether from injury, the unforgiving depth chart, or the zero-sum nature of sport, their departure evokes a sense of "not yet." The clock doesn't care if you tweaked an ulnar nerve, or if you have one more great game in you, or if you have that one thing left to do. When the music stops playing, wherever you are, you have to sit down.
Jordan Morgan’s place in the firmament of Michigan basketball was set. He sat alongside Stu Douglass and Zack Novak in the realm of those who brought Michigan back. They were the scrappy insurgents. The relentless challengers to the Big Ten hierarchy. Their names would be uttered along with phrases like “laid the groundwork” and “revived the program.” They would be looked upon with great appreciation, and a wistful ‘remember when’ sentiment reserved for the Little Engines who do.
They weren’t the ones who could climb the mountain, of course. Such feats are left to the Trey Burkes of the world. But they would effort up the mountain nonetheless, and make others believe it was possible to reach the summit.
Morgan’s ascent reached its peak last year at Illinois. Early in the first half, he jumped to take a pass in the post, and his chapter of Michigan basketball ended in a heap on a distant orange floor.
It seemed unfair, but at the same time somehow inevitable. For many, Morgan was merely keeping the seat warm as they awaited the full and rapturous arrival of Mitch McGary. McGary was everything Morgan wasn’t; he was rangy and athletic, he had excellent hands and a soft shooting touch, and he had a diverse offensive game. And more importantly, he came in with the guru-approved bona fides proclaiming him to be the kind of guy around whom you can form a championship team. Basketball is, at the very upper echelons, a ‘Jimmys and Joes’ sport. It is a race for thoroughbreds, not workhorses. And as much fun as the 2012 team was, there was always something unsustainable about it. Talent brings stability. Talent brings banners. Talent builds programs.
From the beginning, Jordan Morgan wasn’t brought in to bring Michigan to the next level. Truth be told, when Morgan committed to Michigan in December of 2007, Michigan didn’t have a level. They were in freefall, and to the extent a 10-22 season can have a “rough stretch,” Morgan committed in the middle of it.
Morgan was a lightly recruited, undersized center out of UofD Jesuit. He was the one of the first commitments John Beilein landed as Michigan’s head coach, beating out the likes of Oakland and Central Michigan for his services. And believe it or not, there was a time before Caris LeVert and Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway and Darius Morris when Michigan fans did not take the hidden but certain genius of John Beilein’s recruiting as fait accompli. Some questioned the offer, and few expected much, especially with the likes of Robin Benzing and Ben Cronin coming in ahead of him. All Michigan fans knew about Beilein and big men was Kevin Pittsnogle, and Jordan Morgan was most certainly not Kevin Pittsnogle.
However, because of Benzing’s eligibility issues and Cronin’s hip, Morgan found himself starting as a redshirt freshman in 2010-11. And all he did was score 9.2 points per game (third on the team) and shoot 62.7% from the field while grabbing 5.6 rebounds a game. It was quickly apparent that he was a master at executing the pick-and-roll, especially in concert with Darius Morris. Morgan had a knack for slipping the screen perfectly and converting. He was also a sound post defender and a physical presence on a team that desperately needed one. The biggest knock on Morgan was that he picked up cheap fouls. In other words, people were mad because he wasn’t on the court enough.
But then Morris left for the NBA. Morgan never quite found the same rhythm with Trey Burke, who was more of a creator off the dribble and relied less on ball screens. Often it was Morgan’s job to just get out of the way, or to clean up the pieces left in Burke's wake. The team flourished, and Morgan was a big part of it, but once again words like “ceiling” began to creep into peoples’ descriptions of the state of his game. Michigan needed a stretch big. They needed a McGary.
Morgan returned to the lineup a couple of games after his injury at Illinois, but it was clear that his days were numbered. A bum ankle sapped his game, and something sapped his confidence. His production dipped, as did his minutes. And then came the event that seemed sure to define Jordan Morgan’s time at Michigan.
You see, legacies are not abstract. You can’t remember the hundreds of plays, good and bad, that a player made over his career. Instead, you need a moment in time that conflates what that player did and who that player was. He was the quiet unassuming guy who hit a shot to beat a hated rival. He was the gritty sparkplug whose aneurysm of leadership triggered a memorable tide-turning win. He was the bulldog who carried a team into the Elite Eight by the force of his will. For Morgan, that moment was one that threatened to etch itself in Michigan infamy from the moment it occurred. It demonstrated how far Morgan had helped to take Michigan, but at the same time suggested he couldn’t take them all the way.
“Remember when Jordan Morgan missed that tip?”
Of course, that narrative is as stupid as it is myopic. There were dozens of reasons Michigan lost that game to Indiana, and Morgan's contributions far exceeded one agonizing roll of The Rock. He was the starting center and played over 24 minutes per game for a team that won the Big Ten two years ago. He notched a double-double and held Jared Sullinger largely in check during a program-lifting win over #9 Ohio State that year. And he was still the starting center when Michigan strolled into, and Morgan subsequently limped out of, Champaign as the #2 team in the country last year.
But complexity is the enemy of legacy. Bill Buckner wasn’t a career .289 hitter with over 2,700 career hits. He was the guy who booted that grounder. Chris Webber was among the best big men in Big Ten history, but his abilities on the basketball court are always the third thing mentioned. And I dare you to name two field goals Scott Norwood ever kicked.
So when Mitch McGary tore through the NCAA tournament like an over-exuberant puppy, and promptly announced that he would return to reprise that role as a sophomore, Morgan’s legacy was sealed. He would play as a senior, but he would be a role guy. A glue guy. A program guy. He would get a nice hand on Senior Day, of course, and there would be a genuine appreciation for his role. There would be mutterings in the crowd about engineering degrees, and about that Big Ten title, and about how it seemed he had been there forever. And about that missed tip.
Morgan could have done a lot of things this year. He could have transferred and been immediately eligible to play somewhere where he wouldn’t be behind a preseason All-American. Or he could have taken his engineering degree and started a career. Instead, he chose to stay and play.
And once again, Morgan found himself starting and playing the lion’s share of the minutes at center. The emergence of Nik Stauskas as the primary offensive weapon saw a return to the pick-and-roll days that treated Morgan so well as a freshman a hundred years ago. He remained Michigan’s best interior defender, as well as its best ball screen defender. He accumulated the fourth best offensive rebounding rate of anyone in the Big Ten and twelfth best defensive rebounding rate. He shot 67.4% from the field, easily the best on the team.
There is something equally unfair, and yet strangely gratifying, about Jordan Morgan’s latest trip to Illinois. He returned to the spot of his apparent basketball swan song, this time not as the weak link but as the undisputed leader of a team poised to plant a flag firmly where it hadn’t waved in his lifetime. And sure enough, a few minutes in he was hurt stepping in to take a charge because he is Jordan Morgan (and not getting the call because, again, he is Jordan Morgan). He wasn’t needed on that night because his teammates buried the Illini early with an astonishing declaration of their undisputed arrival atop the Big Ten. And afterward, his teammates to a man insisted that the guy who scored four points in seven minutes hold the trophy and lead them in The Victors.
Morgan has never been 'the guy.' Darius Morris was the guy before Trey Burke was the guy before Nik Stauskas was the guy. But make no mistake: this is Jordan Morgan’s team. And his team has done something that no Michigan team for a generation has done. The 1989 NCAA Champions weren't Big Ten champions. The Fab Five never won a Big Ten Title. Rudy T never won a Big Ten Title. Neither did Robert Traylor or Louis Bullock or Manny Harris or Darius Morris. Jordan Morgan brought home two.
So now, on Saturday afternoon, Jordan Morgan will get what no Michigan senior in a long time has gotten: a victory lap. Others have walked to center court with better numbers, but no senior has done so with as complete a resume as Morgan in decades. So instead of simply applauding his heart and dedication and perseverance (a chorus that would be robust and well-deserved on its own), they can applaud his real, pen-on-paper accomplishments:
134 games played (likely to pass Stu Douglass for the most games ever played in a Michigan uniform)
112 games started
2768 minutes (nearly two full days) on the court
887 points on 62% shooting
A 98-39 record
Two Big Ten titles, including one outright title
Four consecutive NCAA appearances
One Final Four (thus far)
In a strange and somewhat incomprehensible twist on what seems like an old tradition, Michigan is once again playing a Senior Night that means almost nothing from a basketball standpoint. There is still a game to be played, of course, and of all people Jordan Morgan probably wants a win over Indiana as badly as anyone. But there is nothing to win tomorrow night, because Michigan has already claimed the high ground. Jordan Morgan gets a day to look around at the shiny new normal he helped to create, and to take his bow from atop the mountain.
"Remember when Mitch McGary went down and everyone panicked, but Michigan still won an outright Big Ten title?"
Previously: Purdue & Minnesota (GRIII Edition)
Of course Spike Albrecht is familiar with the "Big Balls" dance that originated in the (terrible) sequel to a classic baseball movie before being popularized as a basketball celebration by Sam Cassell.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the GIFs, featuring Nik Stauskas making Andrew Dakich do Andrew Dakich things, Jordan Morgan's old man strength, Jon Horford's zen calm, and much more.]
3/1/2014 – Michigan 66, Minnesota 56 – 21-7, 13-3, guaranteed share of Big Ten title
He moved it with his mind [Eric Upchurch]
Let us recalibrate ourselves.
I'm 34. Growing up, it was expected that Michigan won things. In football. And therefore in everything else, because football is everything except at, like, Kansas. (Kansas hired Charlie Weis on purpose. Basketball focus is kind of a disease.) That bled into other things, and then success was expected. This Is Michigan.
Success is still expected, in rhetoric and increasingly anachronistic Michigan-directed hate from fanbases around the Big Ten. Rivalry things I get. I don't get Iowa being livid about everything after taking five of six because of Bo, basically. Even after the key thing was eminently humbled, the new guy came in saying This Is Michigan, and yours truly and everyone else ate it up.
But the reality is that Michigan is in an increasingly demographically unfavored situation, waiting until water scarcity and global warming drives the people back into its bosom. Reputation and momentum worked in tandem to forestall the impact of these trends, and then: kaboom. First basketball, then football, and then sort of but pretty much hockey.
The dominion of Michigan is increasingly hard to see sustained. There is a lot of money and fanbase and these things should keep them above middling; Michigan fans expect any program fielded to be mentioned in the same breath with the elites. We are ill prepared to deal with anything but, what with infinite bowl streak that still defines our self-perception. 13 years into the post-Cooper era at OSU and it still feels like a cruel surprise.
Here's the thing.
Birthright fandom kind of sucks. You expect thing X and you must have thing X and anything slightly short of thing X is terrible. Being around OSU fans talking epic crap about every slightly deficient player on their team is both revelatory and probably a glimpse into what I thought in the immediate vicinity of 1997. See Kentucky basketball.
Hoping not to die is more fun. Ask an MSU fan about this, in re: Rose Bowl.
These things are inevitable historical trends that catch entire fanbases up and cannot be resisted. Success begets the expectation of more of that. What I am saying is that Michigan is now a hope-not-to-die set of programs with a birthright fanbase. We should recalibrate ourselves, for good fun.
When Michigan hired John Beilein they hadn't been to an NCAA tournament since 1998, when Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock were team leaders. The year before, Maurice Taylor joined those gentlemen on a team that didn't make it at all; Taylor left for the NBA draft, where the Knicks drafted him because they are the Knicks. He tooled around the NBA for a decade, shooting long twos and flinching from any loose ball that came within three feet of him.
John Beilein hates no one and makes self-depreciating jokes about subs being crazy and brings in Novaks and Burkes and Stauskases and Morgans. It is in fact cute when he loses his mind at the latest refereeing outrage he's been exposed to, even as it seems to get results these days.
He picks out random post-grad point guards from Indiana and leads them to double-digit A:TO ratios, and even when Michigan does happen to have a pile of NBA players on their roster it's by accident and development. Nobody's rushing to give these gentlemen shoe contracts until Beilein (and Alexander and Meyer and Jordan) reconfigure them.
This is one thing. This is a good thing. I supported Beilein's hire because I thought his floor was what he would do at West Virginia and Richmond and wherever he'd ever been, bringing in guys who would outperform recruiting expectations and enter many NCAA tournaments as the team you don't want as a Sweet 16 seed.
Then there is the other thing. Beilein won a Big Ten title with Novak as his power forward, and went to the championship game the next year on the back of a Penn State decommit and an NBA legacy no one really seemed to want. And this year, down both of those first-round draft picks he and his assistants identified and developed, down the one super-blue-chip recruit Beilein has ever acquired, Michigan won the Big Ten. They are just about a lock to win it outright for the first time in almost 30 years.
I know you are inclined because of that drought, and I think I probably don't have to tell many people this thing, but I kind of have to tell myself. This is not normal. This is not something that can be expected. This is not Michigan, not in that sense.
It seems to be Michigan. And the Michigan it posits is a different, bizarre, wondrous thing. Not because of anything inherent. There are places better able to recruit with athletic departments better at creating an environment. This has nothing to do with institutional momentum, because there was none. This is whole cloth, from which they've made three banners in three years. And counting.
This is not This Is Michigan. This is better.
Randomness is random. Very frustrating start from behind the line as Michigan goes 2/12 on mostly high quality looks (there were a couple Stauskas jacks that were tough). Irvin in particular went 0/3 on three must-take shots. But things evened out with a hot streak that saw Michigan finish the game at 39%, just about on their season average.
I was about to start rage-shaking about another impossibly slow offensive start when Michigan kicked it into gear. So there's that.
GRIII doin' things. Figures that as soon as I say Robinson should basically never take anyone off the bounce he starts doing that rather effectively. He drove to the lane and dumped a pass off to Morgan for an and-one. I was all like "urk?" Then he drove Buggs to the baseline and set up Stauskas for the triple in Stauskas/LeVert Corner, and I was like "guuuurk?"
That is real progress. He's had three assists in consecutive games, a feat he only achieved once before this year, against Penn State, and he's generated at least a few of his own shots. It's still a work in progress, as the frustrating turnovers when he brings the ball up indicate, but at least the last four games (averaging 6/9 from two) provide a indication of that progress stuff.
And then there were the usual GRIII-is-destroying-Tokyo things. He re-enacted his game winner against Purdue and brought the house down on 1) a Stauskas alley oop and 2) a bang bang bang transition oop that had me waving myself with an elaborate hat and moaning "mercy!"
I do think he needs to have more impact on the boards on both ends. The OREB/putback after Minnesota had closed in the second half was awesome; it reinforced his ability in that department and the unfortunate rarity of things like that. He's got close to the same athleticism Braden Dawson does (Dawson is thicker) but is nowhere near Dawson's spectacular 13.2 OREB rate.
The zoom in. Ace pointed out that if you zoom in on one of Eric's GRIII-destroys-Tokyo images you get magic:
This contains the Horford/McGary dichotomy, the bench mob going off, Andrew Dakich like crane-kicking a dude, and John Beilein reacting exactly how I did, with a sort of stiff "okay hurray GET BACK ON DEFENSE."
Long twos! Argh! I don't mind a long two with 12 or 10 or 8 seconds on the shot clock. Once the clock gets much under that people start overplaying the shot you have to take, and your chances of finding something super is not great. Even 15 is tolerable. 25 sends me into conniption fits, especially against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten, and it certainly seemed like Michigan was taking a ton of 'em.
That Stauskas aggressiveness thing does lead to a bunch of questionable shots, and I'm okay with it when the payoff is 3 points at like a 30 or 35 percent rate, two at a 35 or 40 percent rate drives me nuuuuuuts.
The elbow jumpers are fine, the threes are fine, it's just those shots a step inside the line that make me hear Bo Ryan cackling in the background.
Turned that off. Morgan and Horford got beat up a bit early as Elliot Eliason went 4/5 and got another layup that Horford had to foul on (he missed both FTs). And then Eliason ceased existing. Major credit to Morgan for preventing entry passes and ripping down several critical MANBOUNDS late.
Morgan didn't get many opportunities on the offensive end, partially because he had a rough game catching passes and the occasional offensive rebound, but the brief second-half section where Horford came in and got crushed by Mo Walker hammered home how well Morgan was cutting off the things Minnesota was trying to do inside. I am slightly worried that there will be a chemistry breakdown next year without him even if McGary comes back, and while that's probably an irrational fear borne of recent Merritt/Lee and Glendening departures, it is real.
Title chance update! Secured. Win @ Illinois or against Indiana and it's outright.
Seed update. The three seed is now unanimous amongst serious prognosticators. Algorithmic source Crashing The Dance was the last holdout, as it still has Creighton and Iowa State ahead of M, items which do not seem true to humans with good track records. Michigan's chance at a 2 is pretty slim, though. They are not likely to pass Syracuse or Duke, Villanova would have to drop some unexpected games, and Wisconsin is hard to pass with their wins over Florida and UVA. If only Michigan could have gotten six more points against Charlotte and Arizona they'd probably be a one, but alas and alack.
GRIII: Pretty, pretty good at the whole "jumping" thing. [Eric Upchurch/MGoBlog]
I'm at a loss for words.
Michigan just secured their second Big Ten title in three years with two games remaining on the schedule. The year the Wolverines didn't win, they made the national championship game. At least four plays tonight were more spectacular than anything I witnessed Michigan do in the entire Ellerbe/Amaker era—good lord, Glenn Robinson—and this wasn't a good offensive effort by this team's standards.
The novelty of Michigan basketball being a legitimate national powerhouse hasn't worn off in the slightest. I still can't help but blurt out "oh my god" on press row when Nik Stauskas throws a lob to GRIII and he throws it down on two people without regard for gravity or human life. Ditto when the backup point guard with one scholarship offer sparks another highlight-reel alley-oop with an Unseldian outlet pass, then follows it up with a leaping high-wire act to tap keep a critical possession alive. Or when Caris LeVert, one-time Ohio commit, continues to develop into an all-B1G player before our very eyes.
I'm still trying to comprehend last year. Now this? Without Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. or Mitch McGary? My brain is a 404 error. The page you are looking for does not exist. Please return to the front page and continue staring at the banners above you until you're 100% sure this is reality.
Adding to my confusion is the manner by which Michigan won tonight. Their shots weren't falling in the early going; unlike the last handful of games, however, the Wolverines weathered an early opposition run with quality defense. Minnesota led 15-9 at the ten-minute mark of the first half. At halftime, Michigan led 31-20, even providing a signature defensive moment during their 22-5 run, a spectacular Robinson block of an Andre Hollins fast break layup.
The offense eventually found its rhythm thanks to the exploits of Michigan's three stars. Stauskas knocked down 5/8 three-pointers en route to a game-high 21 points. Though LeVert (13 points) struggled outside the arc (1/5), he hit 4/8 two-pointers, dished out five assists, and used his three defensive rebounds to ignite transition opportunities. Robinson added 12 points, half of which came on alley-oops, seemingly touched the rafters to pull down a critical late offensive rebound before finishing the job himself, and knocked home one of his signature 18-footers.
Jordan Morgan scored five points on three shots, but that only scratches the surface on his contributions tonight. He drew a huge charge call in the second half, played his usual excellent defense, and pulled in ten rebounds. Morgan's final board, on a Stauskas miss with 1:45 remaining, led to Spike Albrecht sinking a dagger to put Michigan up ten, capping a high-impact outing for Michigan's backup point guard. Derrick Walton only played 18 minutes; in that time, he scored eight points on five shots.
Michigan will raise their third banner is as many years when the 2014-15 season begins. Several of tonight's key figures won't be in uniform—Morgan, definitely, and who knows what will happen with the pro prospect sophomores? It'll be a familiar feel to start a Michigan season, and that alone is astounding to this child of the late '90s and early aughts.
Better yet, this season isn't over, and once again the Wolverines are rounding into form as the calendar flips to March. I think this Beilein fellow just might work out.