While, it was nice to see the Illini get a home win over Rutgers control most of the game from start to finish, the better development is the continued progression of Maverick Morgan. The Illini junior center put in another great game with 17 points and 5 rebounds on 7 of 11 shooting. He now has 87 points (12.4 ppg) and 39 rebounds (5.6 rpg) over the last seven games. All of a sudden, this solid Big Ten big man performance is becoming the norm for Morgan.
This is clearly Morgan’s best season at Illinois. His minutes have doubled (8.9 to 18.5) from last year, while his points have tripled (2.5 to 7.6). Morgan also is shooting at a high rate (58.7 percent). The even more impressive stat this year is his scoring improvement from non-conference to conference. Morgan averaged 5.4 ppg during non-conference play, but has taken a big leap to 9.6 ppg during Big Ten play. What is the reason for this success?
While watching Maverick over the last couple months, what sticks out most is the simplification of his game. Morgan is scoring in six ways right now.
First, there is the offensive rebound put back. Some of this is the luck of being in the right place at the right time, but some of it is a credit to Morgan too. He is putting himself in position to be in the right place at the right time, and when he gets the offensive board, he keeps the ball high and goes back up quickly with balance.
The next two ways Morgan scores occur on the block Morgan has really improved at gaining deep position in the post. Sometimes, he gains good position on the first catch. When he doesn't, he catches, kicks back out and reposts deeper. When he catches on the block, he only uses two moves. He either goes to the righty hook over the left shoulder or he shoots a turnaround over the right shoulder.
Morgan scores also scores from two of his sweet spots on the floor. The first is on a ballscreen from the wing. Morgan pops to the baseline for a 15-foot jumper. The other way is when he posts up on the block and a player drives baseline, he releases to the foul line for an elbow jumper.
The last spot is from the top of the key. When Morgan sets a high ballscreen, he rolls to the front of the rim. Here he catches the ball high, and goes to the rim to score without having to gather himself after the catch.
Now, let's take a look at why each of those areas is important. All the ways Morgan scores are perfected in practice. For offensive rebounds, you can use a heavy ball to go get the ball off the rim and keep it high. By doing this with a heavy ball, it is easier to keep the regular ball high in games and it also improves your explosion.
Scoring on the block is something you see less and less of in this era of basketball. That's partially due to the evolution of the game and partially because guys just don’t have “go-to” moves. Some players will say they have six to 10 moves in the post. If a player has this many moves, he usually thinks rather than reacts during game situations. Right now, Morgan's two moves are working well. Two good moves are better than eight bad moves. Plus, when you only practice two moves, your muscle memory improves quickly and you gain confidence in those moves.
Morgan's jumper looks great, partially because he only shoots from four spots on the floor: the two baselines and the two elbows. Shooting is all about footwork. If you have good footwork, you can be a really good shooter. Morgan can simulate picking and popping to the wing after ballscreens and releasing to the elbow on a baseline drive. Again, repetition will produce good footwork and muscle memory.
Maybe the biggest change is Morgan’s game is his confidence. Confidence comes when two things happen. First, you work hard in practice and trust the work you have put in. The second is success in the games. Both of these areas are coming through for Morgan right now. Morgan is playing under control in the post. He takes his time when there is no double team, and he goes quick when he has an angle or the double-team comes. This is a feel for the game that comes with experience, repetition and confidence. Morgan has all three right now.
Watch how Maverick Morgan gets his shots and points on Sunday at Wisconsin. If they come in these six ways, he will continue to play well. If he tries to do something outside the box, he could struggle to sustain his momentum.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.