AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Jordan Morgan has been the starting center for this Michigan basketball team for three years. Besides junior forward Tim Hardaway Jr., he has been around longer than any member of the starting lineup.
Out of Michigan’s 32 games this year, the redshirt junior started 27 of them. He was lauded for being the defensive captain in the middle, the underrated key to the Wolverines’ success. His stats were never overwhelming — averaging around five points and five rebounds a game — but Michigan, especially on defense, didn’t look the same without him.
Yet in Michigan’s 78-53 win over Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday, the win that pushed Michigan to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994, Morgan didn’t play a single minute, and that was the right decision.
Saturday, against the Rams, the Wolverines needed the man who has been backing up Morgan most of the year. They needed their behemoth, their human lightning rod, the man known more for his energy and crowd-pleasing antics than his actual play.
They needed freshman forward Mitch McGary, who did things to the Rams’ frontcourt that Michigan hasn’t seen all season. This game was supposed to be about VCU’s “Havoc” defense, and the guard play that goes along with it. In a way, it was, but it was also about McGary’s emergence on a national stage.
In November, he was more of a caricature of a post player. There were moments of athletic brilliance, when you shook your head and wondered how somebody 6-foot-10 could move that gracefully.
He was a fan favorite early, known for waving his arms and diving for loose balls more than post moves or points.
Reminders that he hadn’t pieced it all together would appear — a missed dunk here, a slipped defensive rotation there. He had the tools, but hadn’t showcased it in a complete game.
Then Saturday happened — the emergence of “Hercules,” at least according to Michigan assistant coach Baccari Alexander.
He played 34 minutes, scoring 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting while pulling down 14 rebounds. Every single one of those numbers is a career-high.
Right from the get-go, McGary’s energy and intensity set the tone, muscling his way around a defender for a big dunk less than two minutes into the game. He was all over the court, finding open seams in the fast break and using his big body for offensive put backs all afternoon. The double-double came just a couple minutes into the second half, on a play where McGary put back an offensive rebound, got fouled and made the free throw.
After the game, VCU forward Juvonte Reddic said that McGary outworked him in the game. Plain and simple.
There were stretches in November when that would have been tough for McGary to sustain over 34 minutes of play — he would look gassed after four-minute spans on the court.
“He came in weighing in the 250s, ballooned up a little bit, you know, enjoying the cafeteria a bit too much,” Alexander said. “Then he got back, recalibrated with his discipline.”
Still, for one man to step into the spotlight, one man has to bow back down to the bench.
Michigan’s scout team, the five seniors who only see the floor in massive blowouts, saw more time on the court than Morgan did. On Thursday, in Michigan’s win over South Dakota State in the second round, Morgan played only one minute.
After the game, McGary stood surrounded by cameras and recorders, while Morgan stood in the locker room, undisturbed. For three years, it has been Morgan’s post. He’s been Michigan’s big man, for better or worse.
Now, it’s McGary’s position for the rest of this Tournament. That much was clear.
“It’s a big change to make, and it’s a big sacrifice on the part of many with Jordan and Jon,” said Michigan assistant coach Lavall Jordan. “But I really do think our guys are selfless guys. It’s all about the team, whatever the coaches decide.”
On Saturday, and likely for the rest of March, they decided on Hercules.
“Sometimes we joke about them guys being in the Justice League,” Alexander said. “If Trey Burke is Batman and Tim is Robin, I tell you what, Mitch McGary might be Hercules. That type of presence is something that’s been needed in our program and something we probably haven’t seen since the 90s.”