It started with a broken play and a loose ball.
With about two minutes left in the IU men’s basketball team’s 89-73 Senior Day victory over Rutgers, senior guard Zach McRoberts,made a maneuver around a Rutgers defender and tapped the ball toward the basket.
Waiting at the other end was senior forward Juwan Morgan with a wide-open lane in front of him.
Morgan let his momentum carry him from there. Unafraid and unabashed, he skied toward the rim and flushed home a two-handed slam dunk.
It was a senior-to-senior play leading to Morgan’s final basket in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and an emphatic cap to a dominant and important Hoosier victory.
There was certainly no reason for Morgan to be afraid of attacking the rim one last time. Considering the performance that led up to that moment, it was apparent no Rutgers big man was going to be enough to slow him down.
From an early putback that gave him 12 points in less than eight minutes of play, to scoring nine straight IU points early in the second half, sealed with a three-pointer that pushed him to 10-10 shooting up to that point, Morgan received countless standing ovations from the Hoosier crowd for his outing Sunday.
It was a rightful response to a performance that was the epitome of what Morgan can be at his best — simply unstoppable.
Yet watching Morgan carve up the Scarlet Knights’ interior defense all day brought up a few questions for me. Now that Morgan’s time playing in Assembly Hall is complete, what is he leaving behind? As his career as a whole quickly winds down, what are we going to remember him for bringing to this program?
What do four years of Juwan Morgan really mean?
It’s been a journey, but it’s been one of considerable growth. We’ve seen Morgan transform himself from an often-injured role player to a legitimate star, a powering force for the Hoosiers.
This version of Morgan, the dominant one that showed out Sunday, wasn’t necessarily the one that was expected when he first arrived in Bloomington. That version isn’t a role player. This one takes control and manipulates opponents and the momentum of the game itself to fall into his trap.
When the game allows it, he knows how to make everyone on the court play to those strengths. Even more valuable, he’s a virtuoso of recognizing when the right times to do that are. That takes so much basketball knowledge to be able to do.
This isn’t saying it’s all been fine and dandy.
There’s the undeniable fact that with Morgan as the true driving force of this team over the past two seasons, success hasn’t necessarily been evident for the Hoosiers. During that span, IU has a combined record of just 33-29.
Yet without someone like Morgan, who has been the only one to consistently find ways to carry the brunt of literally everything IU does on the court, even that record would be unattainable. Morgan maybe hasn’t grown into the type of player that is going to bring the Hoosiers back to the promised land of NCAA Tournament glory, but he is the one to steer them through this time of transition between Archie Miller and Tom Crean.
The Hoosiers’ sudden revival as a legitimate NCAA Tournament bubble team would probably be nowhere in sight without Morgan. Without him these past two seasons, IU as a program might’ve been sunk and in a rebuild.
“You know, seniors do one of two things,” Miller said. “They either run away because it's too hard or they just fight, and Juwan is a fighter. Fighters fight.”
As Morgan spoke to the crowd after Sunday’s victory, there was no breakdown in tears or a complete pouring out of his soul. It was just a simple message of genuine gratitude to the fanbase and the program. Without IU, that current version of Morgan wouldn’t be what it is today. Without Morgan, there is no current iteration of IU that remains as competitive as it still is as it fights to the end of this season.
When Morgan was finished, he received one last standing ovation for the day.
Every single one was well-deserved.
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