Without major minutes from Jordan Morgan, Michigan falls just short of another Final Four

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INDIANAPOLIS — Coming into Sunday’s Elite Eight game with No. 8 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan had to feel confident in another close game that was coming down the wire. The Wolverines entered Sunday’s game 10-2 in games decided by five points or less — including nine straight wins in that situation — and Michigan seemed to thrive in late-game situations during the 2013-14 season.

But the Wolverines’ streak of strong play in tight games ended on Sunday as Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left gave Kentucky the 75-72 win, ending Michigan’s chances of making back-to-back Final Fours.

The Wolverines could never get over the hump in the second half against Kentucky.

After withstanding an early 8-2 second-half run from the Wildcats, Michigan rallied to take a 55-51 lead with 11:27 left but Kentucky was the one that made key plays down the stretch to come away with the victory. After tying the game at 55 with 8:52 remaining on a Julius Randle jumper, Kentucky never trailed again in the contest. Despite Michigan tying the game at 70-all and 72-all, Kentucky roared back and got baskets to maintain its late-game lead.

It just wasn’t Michigan’s night to win a close game in a season that had seen them pull out a lot of close finishes.

“Each team had spurts in the game where they made runs,” freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “Their run kind of lasted longer than ours and the ball bounced their way tonight so credit them for executing their game plan.”

As Michigan forward Jordan Morgan sat with his shoulders slumped and his eyes red on a golf cart taking him from the Wolverines’ locker room to the postgame press conference, the senior completely looked the part of someone who had just lost their final college basketball game in heartbreaking fashion.

Disappointment was abound in the Michigan locker room in Lucas Oil Stadium, but most of the Wolverines seemed upset that they couldn’t get over the hump for Morgan, the only senior on Michigan’s roster.

“It hurts having a guy like J-Mo, putting his blood, heart, sweat and tears into this game and for this team,” Walton said. “Coming up short, knowing you could have made an extra play for him it kind of hurts.”

Michigan’s season has been defined by the extraordinary play of Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, the talent of sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III and the emergence of younger players like Walton and sophomore wing Caris LeVert but losing Morgan to foul trouble for much of the game hurt Michigan tremendously on Sunday.

Morgan had been playing at a very high level in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and with the senior only playing 22 minutes on Sunday, Kentucky took advantage on the interior. Michigan’s offense missed Morgan’s ability to screen and slip on pick-and-rolls and the Wolverines’ offense wasn’t nearly as potent with junior forward Jon Horford in the lineup.

Morgan finished 5-for-6 from the field with 11 points on Sunday.

The Wildcats also pounded the glass for a 35-24 advantage and outscored Michigan in the paint 46-36. The Wolverines actually outscored Kentucky on second-chance points, 23-17, but without Morgan’s consistency inside, players like Julius Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Marcus Lee (10 points, eight rebounds) made a killing on the inside.

Morgan had only one double-double during the regular season but the senior had back-to-back double-doubles in Michigan’s first two NCAA Tournament wins over Wofford and Texas. The forward also added 15 points and seven rebounds in Friday’s win over Tennessee as Morgan took the key charge on Volunteers junior forward Jarnell Stokes with the game on the line for Michigan.

​”One of the things we noticed with Jordan, when he has more playing time that he’s really excelled,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said after the game. “​The problem we had this year was Jordan was playing so well, he was such a leader and such an asset to the team.”

But without Morgan as Michigan’s rock inside, the Wolverines failed to make a significant run against a Kentucky team that has consistently pounded teams on the interior this season. Morgan’s missing presence in the lineup allowed Kentucky to stay in the game despite Andrew and Aaron Harrison starting a combined 2-for-15 from the field.

Once Aaron Harrison heated up from the perimeter with four three-pointers in the game’s final 8:06, it was too much in the end for Michigan to overcome. The Wolverines had their chance to capitalize on the Harrison twins’ slow start, but couldn’t do so without Morgan in the lineup.

“​It’s tough. You want to be out there, but I think Jon started to play a little bit better the second half,” Morgan said. “He really started to step it up, and, having fouls like that, that was a smart thing to do to just kind of conserve those fouls (and avoid) foul trouble so that I could finish out the game.”

It’s uncertain whether Stauskas, Robinson III and injured sophomore forward Mitch McGary will return to Michigan next season — as the trio flirts with the possibility of jumping to the NBA — but Michigan will surely miss the presence of Morgan next season.

Not many expected Michigan to be one possession away from making back-to-back Final Fours and winning the Big Ten title outright after losing Trey Burke — and the injury to McGary — but Morgan was a big reason why Michigan was a major contender this season.

“(This season) means a lot to us and I’m really happy for Jordan,” LeVert said. “We just tried to reflect on a great season, but at the same time, we lost by three (near) the buzzer, so it’s a tough loss for us.”

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.