those who stay will be champions
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?"
From reader Shane Styles, the gym at Minnesota's Rochester Community and Technical College:
Those who stay will in fact be runners-up at the JUCO division III golf national championships, Joel Swisher. Also don't ever set foot in Michigan because you will spontaneously combust due to ambient coach-rage.