Morgan carrying Hoosiers through adversity

Juwan Morgan wants to be the reason why.

He wants to be the reason why Indiana returns to the NCAA Tournament and accomplishes its big picture goals. He wants to be the reason why, amid mounting injuries, the Hoosiers survive their first dose of adversity. He wants to be the reason why IU does a lot of things this winter.

Right now, he’s playing like it.

As the Hoosiers navigate this formative period of the season without a full roster, Morgan is buoying the team with the kind of presence befitting a veteran all-conference player. He’s scoring when required, taking over when he can and willing Indiana through these early-season contests with a drive that demonstrates his desire to be everything Indiana needs in its leader.

“(I) just have so much confidence in him being able to come through when we need it, whether it’s a basket, catch, rebound, blocked shot,” IU coach Archie Miller said.

Through five games, and especially lately, Morgan is making good on his mission to become IU’s go-to source. With a seemingly rotating mix of available players each week this month, Morgan has been Indiana’s constant.

And he has to be.

Indiana doesn’t have another scholarship player on its roster who knows what it takes to win a Big Ten title. To get back to that point later this season, Morgan will have to lead the pack. This is his team, and already, he’s showing that he’s both capable and willing to lead the Hoosiers, particularly when they need it most.

During Tuesday’s 78-64 win over UT-Arlington, Morgan recorded the 11th double-double of his career with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The senior forward scored 14 of those points during the second half, playing a season-high 36 minutes, including all 20 in the second half.

Late in regulation, after a 20-point lead had been carved down to one point, Morgan established himself as the go-to option against Arlington’s undersized frontcourt. Across the final 5:29 of the contest, Morgan finished with four points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal.

“I think it was needed at that point in the game, you know?” Morgan said. “We outsized them a little bit. We were just trying to take advantage of the switches. And I think every time I set the ball screen I was trying to slip it into the post. And my teammates found me and I found them in return. And I think we did a good job.”

Tuesday’s win also reinforced just how much IU missed Morgan during the final 17 minutes of Sunday’s one-point loss at Arkansas, while the senior forward sat with two fouls.

With UT-Arlington sinking shots during its second-half comeback, it was the kind of game that a rudderless team could’ve allowed to slip away.

Morgan, who is averaging 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, would allow no such thing.

With IU holding a 69-62 lead entering the final media timeout, Morgan was animated as the Hoosiers formed their huddle on the sideline. He barked about finishing the job, making the tough plays and staying focused on victory during a night when so many other things seemed sideways.

Indiana needed Morgan’s scoring, of course, but it also needed the little things that the experienced senior was able to provide.

“Three blocks, three steals, four assists, six offensive rebounds, big baskets,” Miller said. “He was good.”

Not only was Morgan good, he was the heart of the team — making plays, freelancing and guiding a new-look, patchwork lineup.

“He didn’t even play with the group he’s normally accustomed to play with,” Miller said. “He was with Justin (Smith) and (Evan) Fitzner. We’ve never even practiced with that lineup before. So to his credit, he was able to hang in there. He’s smart.”

Before next Tuesday’s trip to play at Duke in one of the marquee games of the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Morgan and the Hoosiers have one final tuneup with Friday’s home game vs. UC Davis, a team that’s struggling to score.

It may not be until that Duke game that IU starts to enjoy real relief from the onslaught of injuries that have put holes in Miller’s roster. In the meantime, while IU waits for its team to heal, Morgan is proving that he’s not only willing, but driven to put the rest of the team on his back.

“Some of these games, right here, when things aren’t going real well, you need your aces to kind of stick their head out and say, ‘Let’s go!” Miller said. “And I thought he did that.”

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