NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — John Beilein admits he couldn’t have foreseen this from Jordan Morgan.
It’s not that the Michigan senior isn’t capable. It’s just that Morgan wasn’t necessarily expected to play all that much this season.
“You had Mitch (McGary) and you have Jon (Horford),” said Beilein, the coach of the 21st-ranked Wolverines.
Now McGary is hurt, and it’s Morgan who has become the starter in his place, helping Michigan to an eight-game winning streak that has the Wolverines unbeaten in conference play heading into Saturday night’s showdown at No. 3 Michigan State.
“It’s going to be a very tough environment, tough opponent,” Morgan said. “They’re going to be very physical. We’ve just got to be ready.”
No doubt Morgan will be a big part of Michigan’s preparation, from the standpoint of both on-court strategy and off-court leadership. He’s an elder statesman on a team with several sophomores and freshmen playing important roles.
McGary was considered perhaps Michigan’s best player after guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left for the NBA following last season’s Final Four run. But the 6-foot-10 McGary is out indefinitely because of a back injury.
Enter the 6-foot-8 Morgan, who has started 103 games for Michigan and was a key player on the team that won a share of the Big Ten title in 2012, before McGary and most of the current roster had ever suited up in maize and blue.
Morgan had to accept a reduced role toward the end of last season as McGary emerged as a force inside, but even with his minutes dwindling, he still contributed. In the Final Four against Syracuse, Morgan made one of the biggest plays of the season, drawing an offensive foul in the final seconds to help Michigan reach the title game.
When McGary needed surgery, it was clear that Michigan would ask for more from Morgan and Horford, and they’ve delivered. The Wolverines have won all eight games in their current streak without McGary. During that span, Morgan is shooting 82 percent from the field (28 of 34), averaging 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds.
“Jon and J-Mo have done an unbelievable job of stepping up when Mitch went down,” sophomore Nik Stauskas said. “I’ve said this a lot of times: J-Mo was the starting center on a Big Ten championship team, so we have a lot of confidence in him and Horford to go out there and do what they do. They’ve been solid finishing around the basket, defensively they’ve been good, and they’ve been rebounding very well.”
In Wednesday’s win over Iowa, Morgan had 12 points and seven rebounds against the Hawkeyes’ tough front line. Michigan matched Iowa with 10 offensive rebounds in a 75-67 win.
“Our coaches talked about that,” Morgan said. “(The Hawkeyes) love to get second-chance points, and we wanted to do the same thing.”
Facing Michigan State is always a test for opposing big men, and although 6-foot-10 Adreian Payne is dealing with his own injury problems, the Spartans will be a formidable foe. Payne has missed four straight games with a sprained right foot, and now Michigan State forward Branden Dawson is out 4-5 weeks after breaking a bone in his right hand.
A couple months ago, Morgan couldn’t be sure how much he’d figure into the game plan for a big matchup like this — but now the Wolverines are counting on him.
“He’s been so team oriented all year long, even when he was playing little minutes,” Beilein said. “All of a sudden, here it is in front of him — a great lesson for everybody. You never know how things are going to turn out. Really proud of him. Love that kid.”
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