MD

Sports

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Advertise with us »

Putting the muscle in Michigan: The rise of Showtime Morgan

BY LUKE PASCH
Daily Sports Writer
Published February 13, 2011

Jordan Morgan savors this moment.

He just set a pick at the top of the key for his point guard Darius Morris, and the play worked to perfection. As Morris dribbled around the screen, Morgan’s defender made the switch to cover him, but Morris’s man didn’t switch off. By the time the defense notices, it’s far too late — Morgan has already rolled back down to the post, all alone, waving his arms frantically enough for Morris to notice, but quietly enough to lull the Indiana defense to sleep.

Morris rockets a no-look scoop pass around both defenders and hits Morgan in the chest. And now, with the rock in his hands, everything slows down. The pick and roll didn’t take more than two seconds, but with open space and the rim above him, Morgan takes his sweet time and makes sure he has your undivided attention.

He waits for all five Hoosier defenders to whip their heads around and groan in frustration — they’ve scrutinized this play a hundred times in film study, but they still can’t stop it.

The typically raucous fans that pack Assembly Hall become eerily silent, just how Morgan likes them. As he squares to the basket, he makes sure he can hear the photographers snapping away on the baseline, ready for tomorrow’s front-page shot.

Yeah, I’ll get the photographers paid with this dunk.

He lifts off, the ball held in a deadbolt grip with both hands held high above his head, and he slams it through the hoop.

Morris and the rest of the Wolverines are jogging backcourt to play defense, but for Morgan, there are too many people watching for the play to be over so soon.

All 6-foot-8, 240 pounds of the redshirt freshman center hang on the rim for an extra second — long enough for him to lean his back into it and have his feet fly up in the air like he’s a kid again, swinging on the monkey bars with his brothers. But when you look at his face, you don’t see the infectious smile he sported on the playground as a child — you see someone pissed off, someone trying to make a point.

Jordan Morgan doesn’t just dunk for two points on the scoreboard. He dunks to deflate his opponents and make sure they pay a price for leaving him unguarded in the post, even for a split second. He dunks to prove that he didn’t peak in high school like so many said he would. He dunks to show he belongs in Division I, playing with the big boys.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll realize my teammates don’t call me Showtime Morgan for nothing.

***

Jordan and his father, Jim, used to wrestle in the living room of their Detroit home.

But those days came to an abrupt end when Jordan was 16 years old, and his mother Meredith came home one day to an unpleasant surprise.

“We kind of awkwardly body slammed each other at the same time, kind of just landed on the couch,” Jordan said. “I heard a piece of wood snap, and just looked at my dad, really worried. My mom was pretty mad.”

It was the last time Jordan and Jim tussled at home, and in hindsight, Jim admits that accidentally breaking the couch was probably for the better — Jordan was getting too big for him to handle. Entering high school, he was already 6-foot-6 and drawing attention from some of the top basketball programs in the nation.

Gonzaga knew Jordan well — they’d been sending him letters since eighth grade. Xavier jumped on board soon after. And in his freshman year of high school, as Michigan State made its run to the 2006 NCAA Tournament (only to become the first victim in George Mason’s Cinderella run to the Final Four), he was contacted several times by Spartan coach Tom Izzo.

But to the surprise of the family doctor and to the dismay of recruit-hungry coaches, Jordan didn’t grow much in high school. He topped off at 6-foot-8, and gradually, his sky-is-the-limit label came crashing down to earth.

“I talked to Izzo for a while, and I went to a couple football games there my freshman year,” Jordan remembers. “He told me that he doesn’t recruit people he doesn’t feel have NBA potential. And after my freshman year, the letters kind of just disappeared.”

In the summer before his junior season at University of Detroit – Jesuit, Jordan got his first looks from Michigan — a transitioning program that had just hired John Beilein, who had compiled a 104-60 record over five seasons at the helm of West Virginia.

Beilein knew the negative wrap on Jordan well, and he understood why a number of schools had already peeled away from the race to recruit him. He wouldn’t be tall enough or strong enough to be a center in the Big Ten. He didn’t have the range to transition into a forward and shoot from the perimeter. And perhaps most unsettling, he just wasn’t athletic enough to develop into a premier Division-I talent.

But the first time Beilein went to Detroit to see Jordan work out, before his junior season, he focused on some of the qualities other schools had failed to recognize — his pursuit of academic excellence and his determination to get better.

It’s true. Jordan often rides campus buses to a place most big-time Michigan athletes don’t go — the College of Engineering classrooms of North Campus. And he puts as much time into his books as he puts into the weight room, which is the type of work ethic Beilein was looking for in high school recruits.

Oh, and there was one other plus — Jordan was raised on maize and blue.

“He always loved Michigan,” Meredith said proudly. “I graduated from Michigan, and I also grew up loving Michigan — my dad used to take me to football games when I was little. And I made Jordan into a Michigan fan when he was little. We always loved this place.”

One game into Jordan’s junior season, Beilein had seen enough. He called the Morgan household that night and offered Jordan a full-ride scholarship to Michigan. For Meredith, it was a dream come true, and she didn’t have to wait long for Jordan to make the decision she wanted to hear.

He wanted to play for Beilein, who was determined to rebuild the reputation of a program that hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly 10 years.

Jordan wanted to be a part of that process, from the beginning. On his first official visit to Ann Arbor after receiving the offer, he sat down in Beilein’s office and got to the point quickly.

“I want to be here,” he said.

“Is that a commitment?” Beilein asked, on the edge of his seat.

“Yeah, I’m committing.”

***

In late February last season, the team went to see Shutter Island in theaters after practice one night. But Jordan didn’t go with his teammates. He came in alone about halfway through the movie, with his arm in a sling.

When he sat down, he couldn’t focus on the film. His mind was dwelling on the one question he could never answer, and it had nothing to do with the twisting plot of a Martin Scorsese masterpiece.

Why me?

Jordan had just gotten an MRI — his shoulder was badly hurt in practice that day. He dove for a loose ball on the court, landed on his elbow and a teammate landed on top of his arm. He let out a yell in excruciating pain and knew immediately that the shoulder had popped out of its socket.

And the next morning, the news came in from the team doctors. Jordan tore his labrum — the cartilage that forms the socket — and would have to undergo surgery for the third time since arriving at Michigan.

“It was really hard, especially because you know that everybody else is getting their workouts in,” Jordan recalls. “Everybody’s in there, sweating as a team, pushing. And you’re just over here doing some leg squats, watching."

Beilein’s bold confidence in the freshman was starting to wear thin, and nobody could blame him. Morgan had been battling injury since the day he stepped foot on campus.

When Jordan arrived in June 2009 — before he had even dribbled a ball in practice his freshman year — he called the team trainer and told him he was having trouble straightening his left knee. A day later, he missed his academic orientation to get scanned and was diagnosed with osteochondritis — cartilage had broken free from his femur and was floating in his knee.

That was just the beginning.

Surgery. Crutches for two months. Surgery to take the screws out of the knee. Crutches for another month. Re-aggravate the knee in practice. Have it drained. Take a week off. Return to practice. It’s still bothersome. Get it drained again. Take two more weeks off. And then, the shoulder — surgery and another five months of rehabilitation.

What a freshman year.

All of that on top of the fact that Jordan arrived in Ann Arbor a bit pudgier than when Beilein first offered him a scholarship.

“When he came to campus to report for his freshman year, I was a bit concerned,” Beilein said. “He’d ballooned up to, I believe, 275 (pounds) or something, and you can’t play like that. It happens to a lot of young men — they come ill-prepared because they’re not strong enough, or they have extra body fat on them that they don’t need.”

The coach had a talk with Jordan when he was rehabilitating his knee.

In Beilein's eyes, there are four reasons to redshirt a player: he’s too young, he’s not mature enough as a basketball player, he's injured or the team has more experienced players at the same position. Jordan fit the profile of all four, and Beilein told him loud and clear — he wanted his future center to redshirt, get healthy and get back on the court.

So Jordan listened.

He gave up pop for water and fast food for chicken salads. When his roommate Morris opened up a bag of candy, he bit into an apple instead. As the rest of the team put their work in on the hardwood, he rehabbed in the weight room. And some days he’d work tirelessly with team trainers in the sand or in the pool to strengthen his muscles without putting too much stress on his knee.

It was all part of something the coaching staff likes to call “sweat equity,” a term that assistant coach Bacari Alexander defines as “the ability to invest in your skill set and the return on the investment as a byproduct of that work.”

The more Jordan sweat, the quicker he progressed toward being Big Ten-ready. And at the beginning of this season, Jordan was named the starting center — the return on his investment was realized.

"I went from 270 to 238," Jordan said. "I was 20-percent body fat, now I'm 10-percent body fat. My body is lean, I’m strong, and if you’re trying to out-strength me, good luck.”

Showtime Morgan had finally arrived in Ann Arbor.

***

On Dec. 6, 2010, a white van pulled into the Crisler Arena parking lot and started to unload.

Concordia — an NAIA Division-II school in Ann Arbor, just a 10-minute drive from Michigan Stadium and with an undergraduate enrollment of fewer than 500 students — was “in town” to take on the Wolverines. The players hopped out of the van and took a few moments to stare at Crisler Arena from the parking lot.

For most of them, that night would be the first and last time they’d play in a Big Ten arena, so they wanted to soak it in. For the Wolverines, the game was a tune-up that didn’t even count toward their RPI.

The writing was on the wall. Jordan would dominate the post the entire night, as Concordia’s tallest player was 6-foot-5 junior Rocko Holmes. And on the offensive end, that’s exactly what happened. Jordan finished the game with 23 points and eight boards — easily his best performance of the season to that point.

But the defensive end was another story. An ugly story.

Jordan allowed Holmes to score everywhere, from the low post to the high post, en route to a game-high 29 points on the night. And by the end of the game, the coaches were left scratching their heads. They’d just witnessed the least satisfying 20-point victory of their careers.

If Morgan couldn’t stop Rocko, how would he stop Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger? What about Illinois’ Mike Tisdale? And could he possibly manage Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe?

Alexander wasn’t concerned, though.

“I think there’s always a humbling experience that takes place during the course of the season, and Jordan was able to discover his early against Concordia,” Alexander said. “(Holmes) ran a clinic, and as a result you can imagine teammates after the victory teased Jordan after the fact. But Jordan has tremendous pride, and he promised himself that that would never happen again. I dedicate Jordan’s development here in recent games to the baptism of Rocko Holmes.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t particularly surprising that Holmes did what he did. Jordan has since learned that basketball, and post play in particular, is a game of geometry. And Holmes was simply more seasoned when it came to creating angles, being in the right position for rebounds and escaping defenses.

It was Jordan’s wake-up call. He realized that although his brute strength would come in handy down the road in conference play, his muscles would get him nowhere unless he played more intelligently when he’s matched up against taller and more experienced frontcourt talent.

And luckily for Michigan, Jordan knows how to be a cerebral player. After all, it’s one of the reasons Beilein adored him in the first place.

“He’s just so intelligent,” Jim said of his son earlier this season. “His intelligence is going to help him a lot. I think he’ll hold his own this year, at least through half the year, and I expect that the light will go on about three-quarters of the way through the season. And you’re going to see a beast.”

And Jim was right. In fact, his prediction was so accurate it seemed like he was operating the light switch.

On Wednesday, just about three-quarters of the way through the season, Northwestern came to Crisler for game two of the season series. In their first meeting, in Evanston, Jordan was stifled in the post and shot just 2-of-6 from the field en route to five points.

But this time, the light was bright and Jordan was in beast mode — the Wildcats didn’t know what they were in for.

He used his big body to set screens and create openings in the paint all night. He showed the finesse to score in traffic, sometimes using pump fakes to fool defenders before going to the hoop and other times backing off for the easy hook shot, finishing with a career-high 27 points. And on the other end of the floor, he terrorized opponents who dared cross into the lane, registering three blocks on the night.

The icing on the cake came with a little over a minute left in the game, as Northwestern was close to erasing a 15-point deficit.

Morris beat the fullcourt press on the inbound pass and pushed the ball upcourt to find himself and Jordan in a two-on-one breakaway. With Wildcat defender Davide Curletti trapped between the two, Morris lobbed an alley-oop pass to Morgan, who slammed it home, sending Crisler Arena into hysteria.

But in section 39, Jim just smiled, relatively unfazed.

***

Jordan finally hops off the rim and comes back to Earth. He takes a second to bask in the peacefulness of a stunned Assembly Hall before running backcourt to join his teammates.

A lone voice in the Hoosier baseline student section breaks the silence.

“Hey Morgan! Congratulations, you can make a wide-open dunk!”

Jordan smirks as he turns and jogs backcourt. He knows that on the next Michigan possession, the Indiana fans will be a bit uneasy, as will the Hoosier defense. They’re going to keep their eyes on Morgan, waiting for him to set a screen and make room for himself in the lane. And if they grant him the open space he wants, they’ll pay for it.

He finally has everybody’s attention.

For Jordan Morgan, it’s Showtime.