IU senior forward Juwan Morgan was the last one in line.
As he and his Hoosier teammates ran out single file, one-by-one Tuesday night onto the court at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to warm up before their season-opening matchup with Chicago State, Morgan stood patiently in the back.
When it was his turn to show his face in front of the hollering home crowd, Morgan took an extra second to clinch his fists, blow a puff of air into both of his palms and then beat his chest twice before finally trotting out on the floor.
This was his last first time.
Nothing about Morgan’s performance in IU's eventual 104-55 victory stood out from the previous 93 games of his career. It was just another stellar outing — nine points, eight rebounds and three assists.
But in the midst of his final season in Bloomington, this is more of an appreciation column for a player, who despite making a name for himself as a legitimate force in the Big Ten last year, still somehow deserves more credit than he gets.
He deserves recognition for the hard-nosed, highly-productive and immensely-intelligent brand of basketball he has brought to Bloomington over the course of his three years sporting the cream and crimson. From a high-energy role player who battled through his shoulder’s annoying habit of popping out of place, to his rise as a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, that next step of his legacy began with this game.
“I always look forward to my shoulder not popping out anymore,” Morgan said at Monday’s media availability. “That’s just something I can’t express how happy I am about that.”
But the reason Morgan deserves more credit isn’t just the toughness or loyalty he’s shown to IU these past three seasons. Those other reasons were evident Tuesday night.
Even when his numbers aren’t gaudy and his stat line doesn’t pop out, Morgan is still doing the little things that helped him crack the lineup as a freshman back in 2015-16. Watch closely and you’ll notice Morgan has a hand in almost everything IU does on both ends of the floor, even if he’s doing something that doesn’t go in the box score.
Defensively, he’s the Hoosiers’ anchor. If there’s one aspect of his game that’s most-underrated, it’s his ability to guard all five positions on the floor.
But his value goes beyond just defending on the ball. Beyond senior guard Zach McRoberts, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a player on the roster that is a smarter help-side defender. He’s almost always in the right position off the ball and is a great hedger on ball screens, the kind of not sexy abilities that get lost in the shuffle in the flow of the game.
But while other players struggle with those kinds of aspects of the game at times, it comes naturally to Morgan.
Offensively, he’s obviously a proven weapon in the post but he does things like fly in with precisely-controlled abandon for offensive rebounds and makes the slightest of movements while positioning himself in the post, helping IU score later in possessions.
For example, in the first half of the Chicago State game, Morgan created IU’s first point of the game without touching the ball.
With the ball in sophomore Justin Smith’s hands and Morgan posting up down low, Morgan sealed off his defender and created enough space for Smith to drive in and get fouled, sending him to the free throw line.
In the second half, he did the same exact thing. After noticing junior guard Devonte Green get free of his defender for a split second at the top of the key and nobody between him and the basket except for Morgan and the Cougar defender he was posting up on in the paint, Morgan executed an even more textbook seal.
This allowed a crystal-clear path to the basket once again.
Morgan didn’t get an assist for that play and seals aren’t a recorded stat and never will be, but that bucket was as much his as it was Green’s.
He created that moment and hardly anybody noticed.
Morgan isn’t as flashy as someone like Smith, and he’s not going to get the same kind of pregame roar as freshman sensation Romeo Langford gets. But he’s still IU’s solid anchor and it's plays like seals and hedges that make him that.
With 7:25 left in the second half and the Hoosiers leading 81-44 and a victory all but locked up, Morgan rammed his way through multiple Chicago State defenders to hustle down a loose ball on an IU missed free throw. He gathered himself in one motion and slammed home the putback, hanging one-handed on the rim for a second longer than usual, spinning around and making eye contact with each section of the crowd.
Moments later on the Hoosiers’ next possession, he got the ball in the high post and flicked a short-arcing, perfectly-placed lob pass into junior De’Ron Davis' hands for an easy layup.
IU Coach Archie Miller proceeded to take Morgan out for the final time, and he got the loudest applause he had gotten all game from the crowd.
It wasn’t quite the recognition he deserved, but it was good enough for now.
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