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The Season in Review: Raymar Morgan Edition

This is the fifth in a series of posts looking at the performance of individual MSU basketball players this past season.  Because the end goal is to discuss improvements and/or adjustments that appear to be in order for next season, the series is limited to returning players.  Previous entries: Kalin Lucas, Korie Lucious, Chris Allen, Durrell Summers.  Next up: Raymar Morgan.

Raymar Morgan's season didn't exactly go as planned.  After improving significantly from his freshman to sophomore years in most statistical areas, Morgan looked to take the next step up to full-fledged college star.  He entered the 2008-2009 season as a preseason all-Big Ten pick, ranking second to only Robbie Hummel as a conference player-of-the-year candidate in most observers' eyes.

The start to the season made us think that scenario might play itself out, as Morgan notched 20 points or more in 5 of the team's first 10 games.  Unfortunately, he was then stricken with a lingering case of hybrid mononucleosis/walking pneumonia.  That illness resulted in him missing 3 games in the middle of the Big Ten season and playing limited/ineffective minutes in 7 other conference games.  He returned to the starting lineup for the Big Ten finale against Purdue, but never really found his rhythm again, playing less than 20 minutes in 5 of MSU's 8 postseason games.

Here's how that timeline looks in statistical form:

Nonconfence 5.5 8.0 69.3 0.1 0.6 14.3 3.9 5.5 71.7 15.3
Conf Reg Season 2.9 5.9 48.9 0.2 0.6 33.3 2.1 3.6 59.6 8.4
Postseason 2.5 6.0 41.7 0.1 0.6 20.0 1.5 2.3 66.7 6.9
Full Season 3.6 6.6 55.2 0.1 0.6 23.8 2.5 3.9 65.9 10.2
Nonconfence 25.8 2.3 3.6 1.6 2.6 0.8 0.5 2.6
Conf Reg Season 22.1 1.8 4.1 1.1 1.5 0.5 0.1 2.1
Postseason 18.8 1.1 2.0 0.6 1.1 0.8 0.0 3.5
Full Season 22.5 1.8 3.5 1.2 1.8 0.7 0.2 2.6

(Notes: "Conference Regular Season" includes the Kansas game.  2PM/G = 2-pointers made per game, etc.)

Once you get past the sparkling nonconference stats, the numbers are squarely mediocre.  (The one exception to that statement is in the rebounding department: Morgan managed to pull down 5.9 rebounds per game in conference play, despite being limited by illness.)  Simple extrapolation doesn't yield much reason for optimism going into Morgan's senior campaign.

But I think there's some additional context to be considered.  In three parts:

1. Let's Go Tempo-Free!
Those numbers above are per-game stats, not tempo-free figures, so the limited playing time in conference and postseason play skews things a bit.  Looking at the major tempo-free numbers, his efficiency didn't drop much from his sophomore year to his junior year, despite the illness:

2006-07 25.2 96.4 49.8 69.0 7.1 23.0 8.6 14.9
2007-08 25.7 110.1 58.6 67.2 12.3 20.0 10.1 15.8
2008-09 23.4 106.2 55.2 65.9 11.1 20.1 9.3 17.9

(Note: Explanation of first two columns of numbers is here.)

Offensively, Morgan declined perceptibly, but not significantly in each of the major tempo-free categories.  There's every reason to think that, with a full season of good health, he'll be able to return to those 2007-08 numbers, if not exceed them in several cases (a reduction in turnover percentage being our #1 wish).

More succinctly: Morgan played better than "10.2 points per game" good this past season.

2. No More Pouting
Normally, I tend to think that trying to identify the "turning point" in a college basketball player's career is the stuff of cliché.  But in Raymar Morgan's case, I think we can identify such a point: December 20, 2008.  That day, after a victory against the Texas Longhorns, I said this:

Our chief scoring option, Raymar Morgan, struggled to score, as I had foreseen (chalk me up for one accurate prediction so far this season).  Damion James (15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals) was too much for Morgan, holding him to just 8 points.  But I give Morgan tremendous credit.  He continued to play aggressively on offense and didn’t pout.  He stayed on the court for a team-high 33 minutes and used the fact that the Texas defense was keying on him to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.  He finished the game tied with Kalin Lucas with four assists, one of which came on the game-winning 3-pointer.

In the weeks that followed the Texas game, Morgan averaged 15.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in a five-game stretch that included MSU's first 4 conference games and the Kansas game.  Then the mono/pneumonia thing hit.  When Morgan returned to the lineup at the end of conference play, he continued to play hard even when he was struggling on offense and his minutes were limited.  That's a very good thing going into next season.

3. Doing It Against Someone His Own Size
My chief complaint about Morgan when I was going through this exercise a year ago:

Against weaker opponents, Morgan could use his size and athleticism to create good shots around the basket. Against more athletic opponents, Morgan struggled. His outside shot disappeared in the second half of the season, allowing defenders to sag off him a bit and prevent good scoring chances. This seemed to effect his overall confidence, leading to less aggressive rebounding and undisciplined defense (his average personal fouls per game increased from 2.2 in nonconference play to 3.6 in postseason play).

Given the nature of this past season, we can't say definitively that Morgan has beaten this rap, but we do have two pretty encouraging data points:

  • 21 points and 6 rebounds in the first meeting with North Carolina (a bright spot among a sea of stink).
  • 18 points and 9 rebounds against UConn in the national semifinals (wearing that mask in the photo above, no less).

All in all, I think there's quite a bit for Raymar Morgan to build on going into his senior season--more than initially meets the eye in perusing the stats from his illness-marred junior season.  If he can put the statistical efficiency from his sophomore season together with his improved attitude and aggressiveness from this past season, he could have a very special senior season.

Bigger picture, let's step back nine months in time.  Last November, who would have though that MSU's top-billed preseason star would become such a limited factor in conference and postseason play and the team would still (1) win an outright Big Ten title and (2) advance all the way to the National Championship Game?  There's the silver lining to Morgan's illness: It forced other guys (Durrell Summers and Draymond Green, in particular) to step up and make plays.  Did that make MSU a better team last season?  Probably.  Will it make them a better team next season?  Almost certainly yes.