At first glance, forward Jordan Morgan’s stat line from the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 71-58 victory against Illinois on Sunday looks like nothing special: one point, two assists and six rebounds.
The magnitude of the redshirt junior’s performance wasn’t captured by how many points, assists or rebounds he collected but rather by the minutes he spent on the floor — the 17 minutes he played was the first time he’s logged double-digit minutes in a month.
Hampered by a nagging ankle injury suffered in late January, Morgan spent the majority of his time on the bench during Michigan’s previous six contests. But his ability to play extended minutes is a promising sign as the fourth-ranked Wolverines prepare to play Penn State (0-14 Big Ten, 8-18 overall) on Wednesday. The Wolverines (9-4, 22-4) held Illinois without an offensive board in the second half Sunday and outscored the Illini 45-20 when Morgan was on the court.
“We had been very hopeful coming out of this mini-camp that he would be back to his old self — he wasn’t,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after the victory on Sunday. “He played very well on the scout team on a few occasions, and I said ‘we’re going use him and see what he does.’ And right from the get-go, I knew that even if he’s not 100 percent, he’s better than he’s been.”
In Michigan’s 79-71 victory against Penn State on Feb. 17, Morgan was inserted back into the starting lineup for the first time since he injured his ankle. But after struggling to keep up with the Nittany Lions’ ball-screen-heavy offense, Beilein elected to play him just nine minutes.
Against Illinois — another team with a ball-screen-heavy offense — his defensive mobility appeared much improved and his presence on the court was a big boost for the Wolverines. He could be seen directing the defensive lines in front of him, and even though he’d been playing limited minutes, his anticipation in the passing lanes and on help defense was much quicker than that of the younger, more inexperienced bigs.
“Jordan Morgan looked like he was 99.9 percent today, so that was good,” sophomore guard Trey Burke said. “Hopefully he will be all the way back on Wednesday.”
Though the Nittany Lions shouldn’t pose much of a problem — they’re winless in the conference and losers of their past 14 contests — they’re improving as the season continues, and it’s only a matter of time before they pick up a victory. Penn State has lost its last three games by an average of five points.
The Nittany Lions are led by swingman D.J. Newbill. The sophomore guard is averaging 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and four assists a game.
Michigan knows firsthand that if it relaxes, Penn State will be able to play a competitive game. In the last matchup between the two teams in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines came out a little flat and the Nittany Lions took advantage. They shot 46 percent in the first half and were tied with Michigan at the end of the first. The Wolverines needed an aggressive second half to pull out the victory and finished the game connecting on 27 of their 35 free-throw attempts.
In that contest, Burke led the Wolverines with 29 points and five assists. Over his past three games, the floor general is averaging more than 24 points and five assists, shooting better than 60 percent from the floor, including knocking down eight of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc. He’s also turned the ball over just three times over that stretch.
“He’s playing the game the right way,” Beilein said. “He has this confidence about when it’s time for him to go in and get buckets or shoot a three.”