Underestimated? Underappreciated? Underdogs? Ask the Michigan basketball team how they’re perceived and they’ll tell you that most of the college basketball world always has them under-“something.” Who knows how widespread that belief really is? The truth is it’s not even important. Whether the legion of doubters is real or imagined, it’s helping fuel the Wolverines on another run.
Now to be clear, the belief that Tennessee would outmuscle Michigan in the post was commonplace. The Volunteers certainly began the game thinking that they could do so, as evidenced by their attempt to exploit Jeronne Maymon’s extreme size advantage over Glenn Robinson III. Michigan clearly had other ideas. The Maize & Blue attacked that match-up with vigor and were rewarded for it. At the end of the first half Robinson had notched eight points and grabbed four rebounds. Maymon, meanwhile, went to the locker room with 0 points, one rebound, and two personal fouls. He finished the night with two points, three rebounds, and four fouls in just 17 minutes.
“I tried to be strong in the post,” said Robinson. “I tried to front him when I could (and) make them force tough passes into the post. And I think the guards did a great job of helping me out down low by scratching down and giving me a little bit of help. But I just tried to make him struggle a little bit on offense. And then when we were on offense, I just tried to attack him and find straight line drives down. Their coach had to take him out of the game and get four guards in there.”
Maymon’s partner in the post, Jarnell Stokes, was more successful, but he too got outplayed. In the game’s defining moment Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin drew up a play for Stokes. Down one with less than 10 seconds on the clock, he began making his move… but Morgan beat him to the spot and drew the charge.
“I don't think I fouled him, but it was a smart play for him to try to take the charge,” said Stokes. “He pretty much anticipated it.”
“Well, they set a screen for him to come open, so I knew that the play was going to be for him,” Morgan recalled. “I just know he likes to play bully ball. He's in a stance ready. I just was there. It's just something I do. I take charges. That's what I do.”
Morgan is still working hard to prove to his own coach what he can do. John Beilein acknowledged that heading into the Texas game he had great concern over slowing down the Longhorns’ freight train of a big man, Cameron Ridley. Beilein acknowledged that he had similar nervousness about the potential problems posed by the Stokes and Maymon’s combined massiveness. On both occasions a perturbed Morgan implored his coach to relax.
“We had played a really good Michigan State team in the championship, and we'd been in foul trouble the whole time,” Beilein said, explaining his thought process. “Afterwards I said, ‘maybe we should have double teamed Adreian Payne.’ We didn't. So we practiced for two days (leading up to the Tennessee game) on double-teaming in the post if we needed to do it. I think (Morgan) took it as an insult… that we thought that he couldn't guard him (one-on-one). You just don't know how the game is going to be called sometimes because he's had foul trouble in his first three years. He did a wonderful job. But he was not happy with this idea that he wasn't going to be able to play Stokes one-on-one.”
After Morgan successfully did so, he was definitely satisfied. The fifth year senior had again proved a point and helped his team win another tournament game in the process. He finished the night with 15 points, seven rebounds, and a blocked shot in 32 minutes of action. He teamed with Robinson to thoroughly best the opposing frontcourt duo with a tally of 28 points and 12 rebounds to Stokes and Maymon’s combined 13 points and nine boards.
“We heard all week about they had mismatches and how we couldn't guard them inside,” Morgan said. “I guess people forgot we play in the Big Ten and we won the Big Ten outright. So we're not really soft around here. That's not who we are. We lift a lot of weights. So it's just -- I don't know -- it's a pride thing for us. We're not about to get punked.”
“I think J-Mo has been extremely motivated since the end of the Big Ten season and he really tried to prove to everybody he could play defense, and how well he could rebound and finish around the basket,” Nik Stauskas added. “He has just been doing an unbelievable job so far.”