INDIANAPOLIS – In May, Jordan Morgan will have his Master's degree in industrial engineering. His undergraduate degree at Michigan was in manufacturing engineering. It is not that he wants to make stuff, at least not exactly. Morgan wants to examine the system and how it functions and analyze all the things that go into making the thing, whatever it is, eradicating all the inefficiencies. He wants to fix it and make it go.
On Friday, the thing to fix was Michigan, bolts popping out and frayed wires sparking in an unthinkable late-game breakdown. At one point the Wolverines led Tennessee by 15 points. With 9.6 seconds left, that advantage had shrunk to one and the ball was in the Volunteers' hands. They set a screen for their lodestar post player, Jarnell Stokes. They sent him directly at Morgan to win the game. Morgan went about fixing the thing.
He stepped in front of Stokes, officials blew whistles to signal an offensive foul, and some throat-tightening inefficiencies melted away in a 73-71 victory for the Wolverines in a Midwest region semifinal. It was on to the Elite Eight one year after a national championship game run. It was another game saved by a player who has now been involved in as many wins, 104, as any other player in program history. Tennessee went at Morgan but could not have forecast that Morgan saw Tennessee coming all week.
“I just know he likes to play bully-ball, he's in a stance, ready,” Morgan said. “He loves to go middle, he loves to drive middle. His statistics say he wants to go middle, he's going hard middle, he's going to try to put you in the basket. It was either try to hold my ground and try to stop him from getting in the paint, which I think I did all game, or just know his tendencies and step in there and take the charge. For me, it was just step in there and take it.”
It is the one last thing the 6-foot-8 senior appears willing to take. He stalked off the raised floor at Lucas Oil Stadium shouting “Mismatch!,” an unsubtle retort to the chatter that the Volunteers would have a sizable advantage in the paint. Which was the same chatter that Morgan heard before the Texas game in the round of 32. And in response to all of it, Morgan's 15 points and seven rebounds against Tennessee brought his NCAA tournament average to 13.3 points and 9 boards a game.
The Wolverines are at times astonishing to watch on offense, because the siege comes from all sides. They are something less on defense, but there is one calculating individual capable of anchoring them. “He took it as an insult that we practiced double-teams all week,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of Morgan. “He wanted (Stokes) by himself. No help. The minister of defense. He was going to handle him.”
In three NCAA tournament games for Tennessee, Stokes had averaged 20.3 points and 15 rebounds. He finished with 11 and six on Friday.
“I guess people forgot we play in the Big Ten and we won the Big Ten outright,” Morgan said. “So we're not really soft around here. That's not who we are. We lift a lot of weights. It's a pride thing for us. We're not about to get punked.”
They verged on getting shocked, though. The offense hummed to 61.5 percent shooting before halftime. The Wolverines hit eight of their first 11 three-point attempts. It was a night in which Nik Stauskas could drive to the lane, plant, wiggle into an up-and-under move, pass himself the ball off the backboard in order to avoid a travel and kick it out to teammate Derrick Walton for a three-point attempt. It was a 10-point lead with three and a half minutes left on a Stauskas three-pointer.
It was Michigan at its most lethal, with six players scoring at least nine points. It also got noxious at the end. Simply entering the ball into play was a chore. Defense on the wing was non-existent. When Caris LeVert received an inbounds pass with 9.6 seconds left and stepped on the line as he did, the sophomore guard turned his palms up at the official pointing to the floor.
“What?” LeVert said.
It was a thought on everyone's minds. A team in such clinical control had committed four turnovers in the last 90 seconds or so.
“I'm sure we felt flustered,” LeVert said. “But we've been there so many times before, we stayed calm in that situation.”
No one more so than Morgan, who did not expect the ball to go to Stokes. As the teams set up, he anticipated Tennessee setting the offense to allow scalding-hot Jordan McRae (game-high 24 points) to work off the wing. Once he saw the screen set for Stokes, a week's worth of preparation unfolded in an instant. Morgan had studied Synergy Sports Technology reports that indicated how Stokes preferred to attack the basket. He knew Stokes would plow into the lane. It was a bit instinctive but mostly the residue of a thorough, analytical approach.
So Morgan just got in the way. “No, I don't think I fouled him,” Stokes said. “But it was a smart play for him to try to take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it.”
In one breath in the locker room, Beilein lamented the effect his roster's youth has on his defense. The next breath celebrated the failsafe at the back end of it.
“We have one charge-taker out there, Jordan Morgan,” Beilein said. “And he was in the right spot.”
Every now and then Morgan talks to his roommate, junior Jon Horford, about the end. Whether it is Sunday or one or two games later, Morgan will play in a Michigan uniform no longer. “That's always with him,” Horford said. “It's in his head.” It is also in Morgan's head that everyone figured the inevitable end would have come already, that he would be helpless to stop it against the snarling beasts of Texas or Tennessee or whomever.
“I'm just used to it, man,” Morgan said. “That's the story of my life. It's who I am.”
So at the horn, as a last Tennessee heave sailed over the backboard, Morgan yanked his jersey out and screamed. The end will come. He just stood in its way once more Friday.
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