February 25, 2013

Borton's Blog: Healing presence

People saw what Jordan Morgan gave his team against Illinois - six rebounds, a difference-making defensive presence, and a pair of assists, including a no-look feed worth of a double-take. But there was plenty they didn't see.

They didn't see the redshirt junior, a high academic achiever, fitting rehab into an already jammed schedule. They didn't see him working day and night to even have a chance at playing basketball again in the Big Ten stretch run.

They didn't witness the dedication above and beyond merely trying out his injured ankle in practice.

"That's all day, every day," Morgan nodded, following Michigan's 71-58 win over Illinois. "I was at the point where I was at home, training room, class, training room, practice, training room, home again, and then I'm back in the morning. It's a struggle, because I'm at home doing treatment when I'm not at the gym.

"For the first couple of weeks, I'm sleeping in a compression boot at night, which is pumping all night, trying to do everything I can to get back. It was a lot of work to put in."

Sometimes, it's tough to see the work not paying off as quickly as he'd like. The other aspect of Morgan's appearance against the Illini that Michigan fans didn't know was simply this: it wasn't supposed to happen.

"I didn't really expect to play extended minutes today," Morgan noted with a grin. "I don't think that really was the plan, going into today. I was ready."

It wasn't. Morgan had spent his time on the scout team in the days leading up to the game.

John Beilein and his staff were hopeful Morgan would get back up to speed, with a week off between games. While the pain subsided, the conditioning isn't instantaneous.

"Right now it's just about getting my strength back," Morgan said. "Sitting out and injuring myself for that amount of time, my muscles aren't what they were. It's about getting my strength back and getting a rhythm back. You've been out of playing basketball for a couple of weeks, and at half-capacity a couple more weeks. It's still kind of a process … that's part of getting my strength back in my calf muscle and my leg muscles - my cutting, my jumping and things like that."

It wasn't there, even last week. So Morgan, the team guy, helped his team by serving as a practice player.

"After we'd made the decision to go with Mitch [McGary], there were a few minutes in the scrimmage yesterday where he looked somewhat like his old self," Beilein noted. "But he was basically on the scout team. We were saying, 'He's not there - he's got to play scout team.'

"I [ultimately] said we're going to use him and see what he does. Right from the get-go, I knew. Although he was not 100 percent, he was better than he's been."

He's also better from the neck up than anyone else Michigan can throw out in a big-man position. That's not a knock on talented players like McGary, either.

Learning to direct the defensive show is a process unto itself.

"It's helping guys be in places, communicating and putting guys to where they need to be," Morgan said. "That might be the difference. Being able to see what I have to do in my job and also being able to tell others what they need to do, that just comes from the experience of seeing the game.

"That's nothing against our younger players. It's something that develops over time."

That says it all, Beilein assured.

"He reacts just a little bit quicker than the other bigs, as to all the changing that goes on out there," Beilein said. "This is a great ball-screen team. We were chasing them, we were doubling, we were hedging, doing different things.

"Coming back out of there, there's got to be a guy that tells everybody where to go and knows where to go. He knows that. Is he faster than the other guys? I don't think so. Is he taller? Does he block shots? No, but he anticipates much better than the younger players do."

Morgan has felt pain far beyond that radiating from his ankle in recent weeks. He tried to go in the debacle in East Lansing, but didn't have much to give.

He's been a cheerleader, assistant coach, and full-time rehabilitation patient for far too long. He's ready to get back to being what he was against the Illini in 17 encouraging minutes.

"It hurts, man," he said. "You're watching your team in these tough situations, that you've been a part of for so long. You want to contribute in every way you can. But the only way you can contribute is just to pick guys up and coach from the bench.

"It's not a bad thing to do, but it's just a different role. There was some adjusting to do. It's been frustrating. It's been a slow process of getting better."

Michigan gets better when he's on the court. In Morgan's 17 minutes versus the Illini, the Wolverines were a plus-25 points on the visitors. That doesn't tell the whole story, but it's hard to ignore.

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