Morgan steps up on biggest stage
DETROIT -- On a night when 45,000 people showed up at Ford Field wearing green, the most surprising appearance of all might have been Raymar Morgan's.
The Michigan State forward has been missing longer than Amelia Earhart. The guy who once was indisputably Tom Izzo's best player had instead become Tom Izzo's most puzzling player. In terms of impact on the Spartans' Big Ten championship and postseason run, Raymar Morgan might as well have been Joe Morgan or Morgan Freeman. Or Morganna.
"It's been a miserable month for him," Izzo said. "Hard on him, hard on me, hard on us."
The misery lasted a lot longer than a month. Walking pneumonia and mononucleosis robbed Morgan of most of January and February, and a confidence crisis and broken nose took care of March.
But now check out Mr. April, rising and realizing his long-dormant potential on the biggest stage of the season.
Morgan's 18 points, nine rebounds and five steals helped propel Michigan State into the national title game with an 82-73 thumping of Connecticut -- the second straight Big East team to simply run out of answers and options against the steely Spartans. It was the most points Morgan had scored in a game since Jan. 3, his most rebounds since Jan. 6, his most steals ever.
"He, to me, may have been the difference-maker tonight," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who aggressively recruited Morgan out of Canton, Ohio.
On the final weekend of the season, UConn saw the monster Morgan, not the missing Morgan.
Through Jan. 14, Morgan was averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds. From that point through the Midwest Regional, he averaged 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds. He sat out three games, came off the bench in eight others and generally seemed like a shell of his former self.
He bottomed out in Indianapolis last weekend, busting his nose against Kansas and scoring a total of four points in two games. The most amazing thing was that the Spartans didn't even miss him on the way to the Final Four.
But to win the Final Four requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. Morgan had to show up here Saturday night for Michigan State to advance.
Which is why Izzo pulled him into the shower in the Spartans' locker room for a one-on-one pep talk pregame. It actually was more a beseeching than motivating.
"He's a very quiet guy," Izzo said. "And sometimes it's hard for me to find the right buttons. Today the button was, 'Ray, I need you.' I mean, all but get down on my knees and beg him. That's what I went to. All the psychological things ... just came down to old-fashioned begging, and it worked pretty good."
It was better than pretty good. It was near-miraculous, and right on time.
He, to me, may have been the difference-maker tonight.” -- UConn coach Jim Calhoun
After seeming to shrink from the fight for weeks, Morgan was assertive almost immediately. Less than 90 seconds into the game he drove UConn strong man Jeff Adrien into the lane and rose right into him for a tough jumper. That seemed to rekindle something in Morgan, reminding himself of the guy who scored 1,000 career points in just 75 collegiate games.
"I just wanted to stay aggressive from the tip and get our team going," Morgan said. "That seemed to work."
It apparently rubbed off on his teammates, as the Spartans got quick contributions from everyone. Izzo played 11 guys in the game's first eight minutes, constantly rotating in fresh and ferocious bodies to wear down the thinner Huskies.
By game's end, the bench scoring was 33-7 in favor of the Spartans.
Out of nowhere, freshman Korie Lucious scored 11 first-half points. He came in averaging 2.9 on the season.
Freshman forward Draymond Green scored six points in a pivotal second-half stretch and eight total in the final 20 minutes. He was averaging 3.1.
But Raymar's reappearance was the biggest individual story line of the night for the Spartans. Izzo's bottomless faith in Morgan was rewarded on the ultimate stage.
Against UConn's formidable front line, Morgan and freshman forward Delvon Roe -- who had seemingly hit the wall late in the season -- both needed to step up. Both did, with Roe contributing eight rebounds and some interior defensive toughness and Morgan getting it done offensively.
"I knew it would come," Morgan said. "Just a matter of time."
Actually, Michigan State was out of time. This is the final weekend of the season. Do or die time.
There were concerns that Morgan was just too sensitive and let his slump affect him mentally. Some suggested he was downright soft. The tattoo on the inside of his left wrist all but outs him as a mama's boy -- "Carole's Baby Boy," it reads.
But his teammates said they saw it coming this week in practice. After being fitted with a different mask for his broken beak, Morgan was more comfortable and playing better than he had at Lucas Oil Stadium, when first fitted with a mask.
"We knew he was going to come out," guard Travis Walton said. "He was shooting the ball good, having good practices."
Said guard Kalin Lucas: "Ray, keep wearing the mask. Please."
He'll have it on again Monday night. And if the missing man turned masked man plays against North Carolina the way he played against UConn, Michigan State might just cut down the Ford Field nets.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.