ATLANTA -- It wasn't hard to find Jordan Morgan on Sunday, even in the media crush inside Michigan's locker room at the Georgia Dome. The 6-foot-8 redshirt junior was one of the few Wolverines who wasn't near his locker, standing instead near a side wall, holding court with various reporters about the two crucial charges he drew a day earlier against Syracuse that helped Michigan hold off the Orange.
It has been much harder for the past month to find Morgan on game days, the former starter having been relegated to very spot duty as NCAA tournament sensation Mitch McGary has taken his spot and run with it. Morgan, who at one point started 53 straight games for the Wolverines and was named to the Big Ten's all-defensive team this season, never really recovered his form after a midseason ankle injury. After the team started sluggishly in its two Big Ten tournament games, and McGary ate up more and more of Morgan's minutes, Beilein elected to make the lineup switch.
Now, on the eve of the biggest game of Morgan's life, his head coach was talking about him and referencing Wally Pipp, the New York Yankees' first baseman who missed a game and never again got his job back from Lou Gehrig. It's not the way any competitor dreams of his role in a title game, but Morgan is doing his best to handle and thrive in his new, limited responsibility.
"It's easy to sit back and look at the situation and be upset about it, but we're playing for a national championship," Morgan said. "That's been our goal all year long and it would be hypocritical of me to have said that all year long and then not be willing to sacrifice at this point in the season for the better(ment) of the team. What we're doing is working."
The move to start freshman McGary and play him 30-plus minutes a game is the latest and most high-profile evolution of the Wolverines' rotation, but with so many freshmen now playing huge roles on this team, it's been far from the only one.
Senior Matt Vogrich actually began the season in the starting lineup, starting the first six games before ceding his spot to sharpshooter Stauskas. Vogrich played 14 minutes a game as a sophomore and almost 11 a game last season as a key bench player for the Wolverines. Since Stauskas replaced him in the lineup, he's barely played, totaling 67 minutes on the floor for the remainder of the season. He's played just two total minutes in the five NCAA tournament games.
Still, as a member of what Beilein refers to as his "investment committee" -- the seniors who have had the perspective of four years of effort for the program to get to this stage -- Vogrich has helped stanch any potential friction as the roster has been turned over to the youngsters. He has the memories of the 15-17 campaign his freshman year to help him and the others appreciate what's happening, even if they're not directly contributing on game days.
"Ideally, you want to play, but we're winning games," he said. "I love watching these kids play. Nik Stauskas is an unbelievable shooter. For him to get to play 35 minutes a game, that's when our team is at their best. As a senior, you just want to win."
Athletes can be the last to fully admit when they're losing their grip, but they're often the first to know that something isn't right. Morgan said he was very aware he wasn't playing well, especially in the Big Ten tournament, where the Wolverines were knocked out by Wisconsin in the quarterfinals. He called Beilein to discuss getting more skill work in after practice when his head coach bluntly told him he was going to be replace by McGary in the starting lineup heading into the NCAA tournament.
Here we are three weeks later, and McGary has been one of the dominant players in the event, a huge reason why the Wolverines will play Monday night for the crown. Morgan has played a total of 17 minutes in the five games, with the charges he drew the other night being, by far, his largest contributions in this run.
No competitor would be fully OK with this, but Morgan is doing the best he can to embrace what he can provide in terms of defense and leadership. He got to vent some of his frustration on the rim Saturday night when he punctuated the 61-56 win with a dunk at the buzzer, his only basket of the tournament, but the veteran knows his defense and leadership are his value now. His teammates recognize that, too.