Jordan Morgan gets his moment

Forced to sit as Mitch McGary shined, Michigan senior now has his turn

Originally Published: March 25, 2014
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

The scream Jordan Morgan unleashed in the closing minutes of Saturday's win against Texas was equal parts excitement and relief, with a heavy dose of validation. It was genuine emotion, the type that defines the NCAA tournament.

Another genuine display followed in Michigan's locker room as Morgan, fresh off his second consecutive double-double for the Sweet 16-bound Wolverines, smiled while he reflected on the moment.

"I just don't want to go home, man," the fifth-year senior forward said. "Last year was magical, and I want to experience that again."

Michigan could have enough magic to return to the national championship game, but Morgan's experience will be markedly different. It was around this time last March, after the Wolverines survived the tournament's first weekend, that Morgan reached the latest hollow in an undulating career.

A bus charioted the victorious Wolverines from The Palace of Auburn Hills to their campus in Ann Arbor. Michigan had just vanquished VCU by 25 points, thanks to a dominant performance by freshman forward Mitch McGary (21 points, 14 rebounds).

But Morgan, while attempting to celebrate the victory, looked defeated.

"Jordan was trying to fake it, but you could see the pain on his face," said Josh Bartelstein, then a senior guard and captain for Michigan. "It was like, 'Two weeks ago, I was on the Big Ten all-defensive team, and now I'm not even playing.' This team had worked so hard to get to that point, and to see Jordan not enjoying it as much, as one of his good friends, it was hard."

[+] EnlargeMichigan
Jeff Hanisch/ TODAY SportsJordan Morgan has risen up in the NCAA tournament, posting a pair of double-doubles in Michigan wins.

The growth Morgan showed in the days and months that followed has led him to this point. He's the co-captain of a Michigan team headed back to the Sweet 16 despite the loss of two guards to the NBA and McGary to a likely season-ending back injury after just eight games.

Morgan no longer contributes from the fringes. He followed up a 10-point, 10-rebound effort in Michigan's tournament opener with 15 points and 10 rebounds against Texas, while limiting Longhorns standout center Cameron Ridley to six points on five shots.

After the challenges of the past five years -- a 30-pound weight loss, knee and shoulder surgeries, three different point guards, last season's ankle injury and the reduced role that accompanied it -- Morgan is at the top of his game at the perfect time.

"It's almost unbelievable," said Morgan's mother, Meredith. "My husband and I always felt it was there within him. We had been waiting for it and waiting for it.

"To see it happening, it's like a dream come true."

Jordan had to wait, too. He showed up to Michigan as an undersized, overweight forward hobbled by knee surgery. He redshirted as a freshman in 2009-10, sustained a shoulder injury that required surgery, and spent more time in the weight room and training room than on the court.

Normally, basketball players would love to be linked to the figure 29.6. The problem for Morgan: It was his body-fat percentage when he arrived at Michigan.

"He couldn't go a minute or two without being gassed," Bartelstein recalled.

"He wasn't physically equipped to compete at this level," said Jon Sanderson, Michigan's strength and conditioning coach. "Initially, it was, 'We've got to change that percentage.'"

Morgan went from 270 pounds to 240 and dropped his body fat to around 8 percent. He since has kept it there.

The Michigan-Texas game amazingly didn't include a media timeout for 8 minutes, 25 seconds. The guy who once couldn't run a sprint played them all. Morgan logged 35 minutes and grabbed six rebounds in the second half.

"I ain't got a lot of body fat on me," he said proudly. "There's been a lot of weights lifted over these past five years. I'm not about to just roll over."

After the game, Sanderson posted an Instagram video of Morgan hang-cleaning 285 pounds. Morgan retweeted it, adding, "Made the difference today!!"

"I call him a survivor," Sanderson said. "Now you see an athlete that is pretty close to his full potential physically."

In the summer of 2009, Morgan and point guard Darius Morris lived in a cramped sauna of a room at Mary Markley Hall. Morris brought Morgan food after his knee surgery, and they bonded over ball.

Morgan initially couldn't catch Morris' no-look passes and one-handed bullets. So they went to the gym at 6 a.m. or on weekend nights.

"Being in a little space with him brought us closer," Morris said. "It translated out on the court with our pick-and-rolls, me knowing where he was going to be."

Pick-and-rolls always suited Morgan more than post-ups. He flourished alongside Morris, averaging 9.2 points and starting every game.

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary and Jordan Morgan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJordan Morgan watched as Mitch McGary did the damage for Michigan last year. Now, at last, it's Morgan's turn.

Morris turned pro after the 2010-11 season, and Morgan's numbers dropped the next season. Trey Burke was a different type of point guard: smaller, quicker, a natural scorer.

"I'm not saying better or worse, but it was different playing with me," said Morris, now with the NBA D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers. "Trey really took off offensively. It was definitely tough for [Morgan] to adjust."

It didn't stop Morgan from trying. Although he lived with Morris for two years, he has roomed with Michigan's point guard -- Morris, Burke and now Derrick Walton Jr. -- on road trips throughout his career.

"He likes to be close to the point guard because he understands their role," Meredith Morgan said. "He wants to be part of leading the team."

The desire to lead fueled Morgan during last year's tournament and beyond. After not playing against VCU, Morgan spent several days at home in suburban Detroit.

"It was very tough on all of us," Meredith said. "It was really hard to be that supportive guy for this team when he was used to being out there contributing."

Morgan decided to reset his attitude. He mentored McGary and others.

When Michigan needed him to stand his ground in the national semifinal against Syracuse, he did, taking a charge from Brandon Triche with 19 seconds left. Morgan punctuated the win with a dunk.

"That's the point where he sealed his captainship for this year," Bartelstein said.

Yet to be captain, Morgan had to stick around. When McGary, whose NBA stock boomed in the tournament, announced he would return for a second season, Morgan faced a decision.

He had his degree in industrial and operations engineering. He could transfer and play immediately. Morgan discussed his options with his parents, who left the decision to him.

"Jordan wants to play at the next level," Meredith said. "You think about how much is at stake. It was surprising to us that he decided to stay, but obviously he made the right decision."

As McGary carried a stack of towels in the locker room Saturday, Morgan stood before cameras and notepads, the man of the moment. He had heard for two days how he wasn't big enough or talented enough to stop Ridley.

But the undecorated recruit who once stifled Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger felled another Goliath.

"That's the fun part," Morgan said, "just showing everybody's wrong."

The ticking clock on Morgan's career has brought out his best. He had no double-doubles entering senior night against Indiana.

He has three in his past six games.

"Senior day is every day for Jordan Morgan," Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said. "He feels it every time he steps on the floor. Those are the most important 40 minutes of his life."

Bartelstein chalks up Morgan's evolution to "basketball karma." Past trials are leading to present rewards. Against Texas, a certain turnover for Morgan turned into a dunk.

On Monday morning, Bartelstein sent Morgan a text message: "How much fun are you having?"

The reply came quickly.

"You have no idea."

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