Werner: Mav the man in the middle?

Emergence of Illini junior center Maverick Morgan would allow others to play more comfortable roles

MINNEAPOLIS – Illinois coaches and teammates had prodded junior center Maverick Morgan to more ferociously attack the glass.

Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford met with Morgan and redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke to show them their paltry team and individual rebounding numbers.

The Illini had been outrebounded by an average of 11.7 rebounds the previous 10 games. Morgan's offensive and defensive rebounding rates of 5.0 and 12.7 percent, respectively, are less than half of the rates of injured Illini post players Leron Black and Mike Thorne Jr. -- both great to elite rebounders the Illini sorely miss.

In his first 100 minutes of Big Ten play this season, Morgan had just six rebounds. In contrast, Thorne Jr. had nine rebounds in 16 minutes on Tuesday at Indiana, his first game back since late November surgery to remove a torn meniscus.

“It's never good to hear," Morgan said of the stats. "Whether you're in business or sales figures or basketball, stats are what you have to go off of. It just enforced what's expected of us. Leron's out. Big Mike's out. Those guys rebound. They do. They're great rebounders. The game's different with them out.”

Morgan probably has seen the labels of "soft" and "out-toughed" on social media. But the most stinging criticism of Morgan came from his own blood.

“My mom sent me a text,” Morgan said. “I forgot what game it was, but I had a pretty good game and she goes, 'Good game … dot, dot, dot … but...” and she was saying I was staying too long on my blockouts and not getting off and getting the ball.”

Man, that's basically the “I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed” line. It's possibly the worst criticism one can hear from their mother – which is why it's usually effective.

Morgan – a skilled 6-foot-11 center who has been fairly criticized for a lack of toughness in the paint – responded to the tough love from his mother, coaches and teammates. With Thorne out again after experiencing sorness in his knee following Thursday's practice, Morgan produced the best Big Ten game of his career in a career-high 35 minutes: 14 points (a Big Ten career high), seven rebounds and a block (he altered more shots than that) in the Illini's 76-71 overtime win at Minnesota on Saturday.

Morgan even threw down a rare, emphatic dunk -- so surprising it deserves its own hashtag. #MAVDUNK

Morgan simply mirrored what he'd done during practice this week, earning the James Augustine practice jersey – given to the previous practice's leading rebounder – in back-to-back practices.

“He's never done that back-to-back before,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Today, he gets seven in a game. That's carryover. He's beginning to realize that most of the time – not all the time, but most of the time – you play like you practice.”

Said Morgan on the big game on the glass: “Obviously, you have to be physical and stuff. But I think it's more of a mindset of going and getting rebounds.”

Chain reaction

Morgan's surprise interior presence on Saturday caused a chain reaction for the other Illini frontcourt players. Basically, the team more closely played the roles Groce envisioned with a healthy Thorne.

Morgan's effectiveness allowed Finke to play the four, his natural position. Rather than having to bang in the post with Big Ten fives, the still-developing Finke helped guard wings in the Illini zone defense and attacked the glass with ferocity. Finke hauled in a career-high 16 rebounds. He had just six combined rebounds in the previous three games.  

Finke sliding to the four allowed star guard/forward Malcolm Hill to move to the three, giving him better mismatches on offense and freeing him to attack the glass on defense. Hill finished with his fourth double-double of the season (28 points, 10 rebounds).

“I think that's huge because I think it's easier for me to get rebounds as a three man,” Hill said. “I'm not down there just trying to take out my man. I can help out with them when they're boxing out their man."

With Kendrick Nunn (one of the team's more athletic rebounders) at the two during these stretches, the Illini were much more effective on the glass.The Illini finished the game with 39 of 47 rebounds on the Minnesota end, or an 83.0 defensive rebound percentage (the Illini's fourth highest mark of the season).

“Thing is, we're going to need that every game," Hill said. "Because not only does that take away second-chance points for (the opponent), but we get second-chance points on the offensive end. That's huge.”

This big lineup -- which had been largely ineffective in earlier spurts this season (Michigan State) -- also allowed the Illini to play zone, limiting dribble penetration (an Illini killer this season). But the relative success depended on two factors: Minnesota (a poor shooting and poor rebounding team) and a surprisingly effective Morgan.

Flash in the pan?

Already midway through his junior season, Morgan is in "he is what he is" territory. He gives the illini flashes, usually in short bursts, usually against bad teams (he did score a career-high 15 points in a blowout loss at Michigan State earlier this month, but he went 2-for-9 from the field and grabbed just three rebounds in 30 minutes).

Morgan has just five double-digit games in his career. But four of them have come this season. He's scored six or more points in 13 of 20 games this season. He's shooting an efficient 57.9 percent from the field and is a 73.7 percent free-throw shooter.

But we already knew he was a skilled offensive big man, who's developed more consistency and confidence on that end.

This isn't a "Maverick Morgan, breakout star!" column. But can Morgan become a late breakout role player, a la Robert Archibald in the early 2000s?

Archibald played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore before stepping into a bigger role as a junior (7.2 points, 4.5 rebounds) and senior (10.6 points, 5.5 rebounds). The difference for Archibald,and why the Memphis Grizzlies selected him with the 32nd overall pick of the 2002 NBA Draft, was that he was physical (he was known for fouling -- a lot) and active on the glass.

Morgan (6.2 points, 2.2 rebounds) -- who in an ideal world would have redshirted as a true freshman but couldn't due to a depleted Illini roster -- has a long way to go to even reach Archibald heights. But the Illini don't exactly need or expect that level of production. If Morgan could just give Illinois a more consistently physical presence in the post (say, six to eight points and four to five rebounds per game?), he'd give the team a big boost just by putting the rest of the Illini in their most comfortable roles. That kind of production would also fill just some of the role the Illini envisioned for Thorne, who's health cannot be relied upon the rest of this season.

“They let the cat out the bag today," Nunn said of Finke and Morgan. "They can go to the glass and get double-digit boards every night. I think they're capable of doing that.”

But can Morgan -- who sometimes frustrates coaches with his laid-back demeanor -- be more than a flash in the pan?

Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Illini opponents this week, should give us a better idea.

"Today, he did a good job," Groce said. "He was at least active. He pursued them. Hopefully, it's something Mav will build on and hopefully it's something he will do for us consistently."

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