What more can we say about Jordan Morgan’s final season? Michigan’s redshirt senior was the bedrock of this Michigan team in every way but offense: he was the leading rebounder, the quarterback of the defense and the team’s emotional center. Morgan was the consummate leader, and exactly the kind this young, talented team needed; on a team stocked with NBA talent. Morgan was an example of what can happen when you keep your head down and put in the work. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)
The final few regular-season Big Ten games served as an extended send-off for Michigan’s elder statesman. Morgan finished his career having presided over everything from a losing record to a national title game appearance, finally finishing it with a heartbreaking — but somehow edifying — loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
As Michigan climbed its way to the top of the basketball world, Morgan’s own career had its share of ups and downs. The Detroit native came in as an unranked, out-of-shape center recruit, registered a revelatory redshirt freshman season with Darius Morris and then suffered benching as a result of Mitch McGary’s NCAA tournament run last season.
McGary’s back injury touched off a redemptive season for Morgan. He saved his best basketball for his final season, fitting seamlessly into his role as finisher and defensive captain. But it was his play in the NCAA tournament that solidified the legacy of this season for Morgan. He scored as many points (15) as both of Texas’ big men combined and grabbed 10 rebounds over the bigger Longhorns; he outscored both of Tennessee’s highly-touted bigs combined and took what turned out to be a game-winning charge against Jarnell Stokes; finally, he grabbed four offensive rebounds and scored 11 points in limited minutes against Kentucky.
Michigan fans had the privilege of watching a fully-formed basketball player in his physical and intellectual prime this season. The final season of Morgan’s career was fitting, poetic, and hard-earned.
2014 Stats: 6 ppg, 5 rpb, .4 apg, 128.2 ORtg, 16.1% Usage
- Rebounding: Jordan Morgan’s rebounding this season was impressive for a few different reasons. The first reason is that he was the only big man on the floor at all times. This is true for either Morgan or Jon Horford, who actually had a significantly better defensive rebounding percentage than Morgan. Michigan plays small, and there is traditionally only one big underneath cleaning the glass. So if Glenn Robinson misses a box-out and Michigan is playing against a team with two bigs, it was on Morgan to fend him off. The other thing to consider is that many times, Morgan’s primary job was to box out, clear out space and allow Michigan’s guards to grab rebounds. This is a classic example of something that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but makes a huge difference. Morgan had a lot to do with Caris LeVert’s and Derrick Walton’s above-average rebounding percentages this year.
- Defense: John Beilein confirmed many times this season what many fans could see clearly: Jordan Morgan was Michigan’s most essential defensive player. He never blocked many shots, but he hedged hard and he hedged smart on ball screens, directed help all over the court and made life difficult for opposing big men. Time and time again, Morgan proved his worth on the defensive end. A particularly stark reminder of what Morgan meant to the Wolverines on defense was Michigan’s loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final. Morgan was only able to play 20 minutes due to foul trouble, and when he wasn’t on the court, the dropoff was obvious.
- Leadership: This was probably Morgan’s most invaluable contribution to the team this year. That isn’t to undersell his outstanding play on the court throughout the second half of the season. Morgan was much more than simply a veteran leader — he was one of the team’s best overall players, especially during the NCAA tournament. But this was a team with many disparate parts that could have been reeling following Mitch McGary’s injury. Glenn Robinson III experienced rough stretches, Nik Stauskas had trouble coping with defenses focusing on him early in the year (read: at Duke) and Michigan was breaking in a talented but green freshman point guard in Derrick Walton. Morgan served as the Wolverines’ guiding hand on the court, and it was a guide they desperately needed. He spoke up often during timeouts and on the floor and forged a solid relationship with Walton as the point guard progressed through the season. His impact in this area can’t be overstated. It isn’t statistically measurable, of course — unless you take Michigan’s final record as a measure.
Room for Improvement
- Offensive versatility: These have a lot to do with expectations going into the season. The deficiencies in Morgan’s game are the same as they’ve always been, but then Morgan stuck to his specialties. Part of what made him successful was his willingness to do exactly what Michigan needed him to do. What Michigan needed from Morgan was finishing off ball screens, set hard picks, play good defense and establish solid rebounding position. These tasks do not lend themselves to an all-around offensive development. Morgan actually seemed to make improvements in his post-up game, but a quick glance at his Synergy numbers shows that he only posted up on 15 possessions this season — nearly all of his possessions were putbacks, cuts to the basket and rolling off screen-and-roll action.
- Protecting the rim: This is another example of a department where Morgan was never expected to make a ton of improvement. However, Morgan’s lack of blocking ability affected Michigan much more than his lack of offensive versatility. Michigan had plenty of scorers — what it didn’t have was someone who could significantly alter shots at the rim. Especially given the Wolverines’ general inability to stay in front of quick guards off the dribble in half-court defense, that would have made a big difference this season. The NCAA tournament games especially come to mind: Texas at times, Tennessee and Kentucky all reached the paint at will. With the new block/charge rules, Morgan’s hands were often tied between challenging a shot and boxing out.
“I mean, you’re talking about five years of emotions all wrapped up into one day. So much work, sweat and adversity that went into this. Years and years of battling. It’s just a constant battle for five years. No matter what it is, whether it’s on the court or off the court, this is a culmination of all that.” — Jordan Morgan after senior night win over Indiana
Jordan Morgan receives the same grade as Nik Stauskas not because their numbers are remotely comparable, but because they each far exceeded the expectations held for them before the season. Morgan led Michigan to its first outright Big Ten championship since 1986 and had an out-of-body experience in the NCAA tournament, going on a tear that willed Michigan to the Eite Eight. This Michigan team was an unmitigated success this season, and Jordan Morgan was its heart and soul.