- Adam Glanzman/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 27, 2013
The girls waited after church last week for a chance to see Jordan Morgan, so when Michigan’s 6-foot-8 forward walked into the parking lot, they jumped at their chance.
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“Jordan!” they yelled, waving.
Retelling the story Thursday, Morgan looked up at the Crisler Center lights and smiled. He waved back at the girls, he said. He guessed they were in high school.
“And I remember hearing one of them yell, ‘Oh my god! He waved at me!’ ” Morgan said.
This is the new reality for the Michigan basketball team, the new stars on campus, on Twitter and on ESPN. Last year, the Wolverines were the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament. This year, they’re even younger. And for the 12 players out of 14 who are freshmen or sophomores, most don’t even remember the old, anonymous days of Michigan basketball, when the team regularly played in a half-empty gym.
“Nobody knows what it was like,” said Morgan, the fifth-year senior. “But it’s OK. I don’t fault them, it’s just the reality of the situation.”
Earlier Thursday, John Beilein stood at the podium at Michigan’s media day and looked out at the full room before him. Seven years ago, in 2007, Beilein was here for his first media day as Michigan’s coach, with a considerably smaller crowd.
Then, Crisler Arena was old and rather lifeless. Players that day did interviews on the court under the numbing buzz of the fluorescent lights.
Now, in the new media room, in the renovated Crisler Center with the new hardware on display in the trophy cases in front, Beilein looked out at the biggest crowd at the event in years.
“Look at this room,” Beilein said. “The environment changes very quickly when you’re able to make the run that we did.”
The change didn’t happen quickly, until suddenly it did. Since Beilein took over in 2007, the program has advanced in neat increments almost every year. In Beilein’s first season, Michigan lost the most games in its history. The next year, Michigan beat Duke and UCLA, both ranked No. 4 at the time, and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan returned to the tournament in 2011. In 2012, the Wolverines shared a Big Ten title.
But last year, the program progressed by leaps: the first No. 1 ranking in two decades; the National Player of the Year; and an appearance in the National Championship.
Within weeks, Michigan’s players became household names. The campus that wouldn’t even show up to games three years earlier flooded the streets following the championship game loss. Ann Arbor had become a basketball town.
Now, of all the players on the roster, only Morgan has experienced a season without an NCAA Tournament — his redshirt year in 2009-10. Redshirt junior Jon Horford is the only other upperclassman on this year’s team.
So during a film study just more than a week ago, the team watched a game from the 2010-11 season. The video panned over the student section. Morgan was in his second year then. Horford was a freshman. He estimated, exaggerating only slightly, that there were about 40 students at the game. In the film room, the rest of the team was incredulous.
“And I’m like, yeah, you guys don’t really know what we went through,” Morgan said.
Thanks to the Final Four run, and the unusually young roster, the Michigan basketball culture has shifted remarkably quickly. Now, the team isn’t worried about how many fans will show up. This year, more students requested student tickets than space allowed. Now, the team is more concerned with limiting the distractions of budding stardom.
It seems life has gone on as usual only for the diminutive sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht, an influx of Twitter followers notwithstanding.
“I’m the same old Spike,” he said to a group of reporters, adding: “I mean, I look like all of you guys, so I kind of blend in on campus.”
But his taller teammates have had a harder time hiding. And most have everyday interactions that would’ve seemed comically farfetched while Morgan or Horford were underclassmen. Sophomore forward Mitch McGary was recently asked to sign someone’s forehead. (“It was a dude,” McGary said. “I’m like I’m not going to sign your forehead, dude, I’m sorry.”) A group of girls asked him for a kiss, and he declined that, too.
Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas says he’ll often walk by gaping students on campus. They won’t say anything as they walk by, but they will Tweet at him minutes later, he says, telling him they saw him.