The Michigan basketball team was going to its first Sweet Sixteen since 1994, and Jordan Morgan couldn’t even bring himself to smile.
The Detroit native kept his eyes on the floor to avoid looking at the countless family and friends from his hometown that had come to see Michigan’s starting center play in the first two rounds of the 2013 NCAA Tournament at the Palace of Auburn Hills. After starting 27 of the team’s 31 games before the tournament, Morgan was replaced by a freshman — Mitch McGary — in the lineup.
McGary went on to score a combined 34 points in those two games, the start to a tournament run so dominant it would land him on the preseason All-American team as a sophomore before this season. Morgan would play a grand total of one minute.
The freshman was celebrating. The redshirt junior felt completely broken.
It took Morgan until the following day off to feel happy again, but even then, he played just 25 total minutes over the course of Michigan’s postseason run.
After the season ended with a loss to Louisville in the national championship game, Morgan got back to Ann Arbor and knew he needed to change something. Letting his happiness be defined by playing time wasn’t healthy or productive.
So began the summer of Jordan, the transformation from someone who defined his own success by minutes and points to someone who could care less about individual statistics. And so began the spark to help turn Michigan’s season around after it struggled in non-conference play and dropped out of the Top 25 earlier this year.
If Morgan doesn’t have that humiliation in the Palace, he doesn’t have the open mind he needed to grow last spring and summer. For the 10th-ranked Wolverines, whose recent 10-game winning streak was snapped on Sunday in a 63-52 loss to Indiana, that growth has made all the difference for one of the youngest rosters in college basketball.
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The majority of Michigan’s veterans are sophomores who have experienced nothing but a sold-out Crisler Center and a trip to the national championship game in their year and a half in Ann Arbor.
When this year’s team watched film of Morgan’s redshirt year in 2010, nobody could believe that the lower bowl of Crisler wasn’t remotely close to full. Morgan, the only remaining player from the last Wolverine team to not make the NCAA Tournament, had to remind them what it was like to play on a nationally irrelevant team.
Really, he’s been reminding the young players of this all season. One of Michigan’s toughest defeats of the season was a 10-point loss on the road against Duke. In the locker room after that game, Morgan stood up and told his teammates they had to stop relying on their talent alone. Scouting reports needed to be taken seriously. Knowing the other team’s tendencies might change five or six plays, but how much would that help in a 10-point loss?
When Morgan was a younger player, the Wolverines had to know that scouting report inside and out. They had to hustle for loose balls and rebounds. The talent wasn’t there — they had no other choice if they wanted to win.
In that locker room in Durham, N.C., Morgan stood up in a room full of potential NBA lottery picks and touted recruits and told them they needed to get back to what Michigan did best.
“We took some tough losses, at Duke and all that, and I think during those games, we really struggled to see that winning games in those type of road environments against teams like that is so much more than just the talent,” he said. “It’s the little things that one team is willing to do that the other team isn’t. That was so ingrained in our program before because that’s how we had to win. More times than not, we weren’t the most talented team, so we had to win by executing better, boxing out harder, crashing harder, diving on the floor.
“But then once you get a bunch of really talented guys — which we now have — I think it did take a couple little bruises here and there to realize that it’s more than just our talent that’s going to win games.”
Since then, the Wolverines have lost just twice, to then-No.1 Arizona in the middle of December and on Sunday, and have vaulted into first place in the Big Ten.
So while a perfect conference record might have been nice, losing in Assembly Hall on Sunday might not be the worst thing in the world. Michigan had to revisit itself after those losses to Arizona and Duke, which turned the season around.
Like Morgan, the Wolverines needed to lose in order to learn how to win.
“I think (losing) helped us a lot,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if that’s the only answer, but I think that’s what worked, losing those tough games in those tough environments. Losing to teams that we weren’t supposed to lose to. That stuff helped. Us dropping out of the Top-25, once you start losing like that, people start calling everyone overrated. ‘Oh, Glenn Robinson is overrated,’ ‘oh, Nik Stauskas, he isn’t that good.’ You need a little bit of that, especially with a young team.”
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Morgan’s spring started with an exercise he did in a management class called “Reflected Best Self.” He asked people from all different areas of his life when he had performed his best. Every single answer was from a time when he put others before himself.
With that in mind, he took a trip to Africa as part of a program called Athletes in Action. There, he had a renewal in his faith, coming to the understanding that God needed to be in every aspect of his life, including basketball.
After those experiences, it didn’t matter that McGary decided to come back for his sophomore season, and it didn’t matter when the preseason All-American had back surgery in December. Morgan’s focus didn’t change at all, because he realized his true happiness only came from focusing on helping other people, in basketball or not.
The same Morgan who couldn’t smile in the Palace last year wouldn’t have been able to handle starting the season on the bench, playing four minutes in a road loss to Iowa State or three minutes in that loss to Arizona.
But this Morgan did. When McGary got injured, the fifth-year senior stepped in like nothing had changed. Since the injury, Morgan is shooting almost 80 percent from the floor to go along with his 23 minutes and eight points per contest, even though his game has never been about stats. It’s always been about taking charges, hustling for loose balls and playing smart defense.
“That’s kind of my game, because unfortunately, I’m not as talented as some of the guys on our team so I’ve got to rely on that stuff,” Morgan said. “But when you’ve got the talented guys, the guys who people look toward as go-to guys, when they start to buy into that stuff, it changes the whole direction of the team.”
For a player whose biggest contributions don’t always show up on the stat sheet, getting Michigan to remember what brought this program from the basement to national prominence might be his biggest victory yet. The Wolverines needed to learn how to become selfless, but they couldn’t have done it without Morgan learning the same lesson, too.
“I’ve grown in that area since then, but that’s what I needed to grow, to go through that,” Morgan said. “I was completely broken. … I had to stop worrying about my own personal glorification. I don’t need to have the articles, the playing time, the points, to be satisfied with myself, but I had to go through that tournament to really have an open mind and heart this off-season to learn that lesson.”
Cook can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @everettcook