Gazette: Highly-Touted Freshman To Join Hoop Team - UMass Athletics

Gazette: Highly-Touted Freshman To Join Hoop Team

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The Daily Hampshire Gazette has a great feature on basketball newcomer Jesse Morgan.

Jesse Morgan has been looking forward to next week's game, even before he knew who he'd be playing against.

Like every nonqualifier sitting out his freshman season, the first game has been the goal for what seems like an eternity when they first arrive.

But on Saturday, Morgan will have a locker and a University of Massachusetts men's practice uniform, a new pair of sneakers and teammates for the first time in a year. NCAA rules allow Morgan to begin practice as soon as finals end. If he's earned his 2.0 grade point average and his professors turn his grades in quickly, Morgan could make his Minuteman debut Wednesday against Central Florida at the Mullins Center.

"I'm really excited," Morgan said last week. "I've been waiting for a long time."

Highly touted freshman to join UMass practice

Photo: Highly touted freshman to join practice
GORDON DANIELS
University of Massachusetts freshman Jesse Morgan, shown during UMass' game against Seton Hall Saturday, is expected to start practicing with the Minutemen Saturday.

AMHERST - Jesse Morgan has been looking forward to next week's game, even before he knew who he'd be playing against.

Like every nonqualifier sitting out his freshman season, the first game has been the goal for what seems like an eternity when they first arrive.

But on Saturday, Morgan will have a locker and a University of Massachusetts men's practice uniform, a new pair of sneakers and teammates for the first time in a year. NCAA rules allow Morgan to begin practice as soon as finals end. If he's earned his 2.0 grade point average and his professors turn his grades in quickly, Morgan could make his Minuteman debut Wednesday against Central Florida at the Mullins Center.

"I'm really excited," Morgan said last week. "I've been waiting for a long time."

The 6-foot-5 guard from Philadelphia originally committed to Seton Hall, a signing that excited then-Pirate coach Bobby Gonzalez.

"He's a versatile player that can play any one of the three guard positions," Gonzalez said in Nov. 2009. "We feel he's one of the most underrated players in the country and that he's destined to be a future star at Seton Hall. His long-term potential is incredible."

But Morgan didn't achieve the necessary combination of core course grades and standardized test scores to be eligible and the Big East doesn't allow nonqualifiers. He attended South Kent Prep in Connecticut in hopes of reaching the minimum requirements. But after one semester he enrolled in Amherst in January.

NCAA rules prohibit nonqualifiers from playing or even practicing. So Morgan focused on getting his academics in order and was proud of his results.

"It definitely helped academically. I think I had a good semester this year, as well as last year. I'm proud of myself academically. I worked hard to be eligible," said Morgan, who chose UMass partly because the school had a proven track record of success on the court and in the classroom with nonqualifiers. "Some of those guys that did it were actually from Philly (Tyrone Weeks and Lari Ketner). It was good to know that a lot of guys before you actually did the same thing, succeeded doing that."

To stay in shape and limit the atrophy to his game, Morgan was a regular at UMass' new Rec Center. He jogged and played in pickup games. During home games he sat behind the bench, trying to study the Minutemen's plays and defensive sets, trying to overhear instructions the coaches shouted to other players. Anything to be more prepared when his time came.

Off the court, he still hung out and socialized with his teammates, but road trips brought isolation.

"Last year it was a little lonely. When the team left on the road I was here by myself. I tried to make the best of the situation. I tried to put up some extra shots and do a lot of different things," he said. "This year I have Cady to talk to and chill with. It's been easier this year."

Cady is freshman Cady Lalanne, a big man from Orlando, Fla., who is in his first semester as a nonqualifier. Morgan has tried to help him along.

"I try to let him now it's just a step you have to take to get to the next level to be on the court. I try to help him out a lot. We've been going to the Rec Center together. We've been trying to get each other better," said Morgan, who pledged to continue to keep his eye on his younger teammate even when he's eligible. "I'm going to try to look out for him and let him know I'm still here for him."

Morgan wasn't sure how behind he'd be when he took the court, but he was looking forward to finding out. "I'll probably be a little rusty, but as time goes on I'll get better and better and get back into game mode," Morgan said. "When I get out there I'll see if I'm in shape and see what I can work on."

UMass coach Derek Kellogg doesn't expect too much early.

"With most guys sitting out, you have to ease them into it because they haven't been able to do much," Kellogg said. "I don't want to push him too hard too fast. I'm looking forward to seeing him play and practice with our team to see if he's going to be able to help us this year. He seems like he's matured a ton since he's been here. That's a tough year. He's be great academically and his attitude's been unbelievable. That's usually a combination from a kid that's ready to perform on the court."

Nicknamed "The Takeover" for his ability to dominate games on the AAU circuit, Morgan will wear No. 5 for the Minutemen. Between Monty Mack and Ricky Harris alone, there is over 4,000 career points scored from guards who wore No. 5. But Morgan is just looking to help the Minutemen right now.

"I don't know if I can score as much as Ricky, but I hope to live up to that number," Morgan said smiling. "I just want to bring hustle and a defensive mindset, just making my teammates better and playing hard. I just want to win."

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