- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (AP) - Darius Morris had just led Michigan to another victory over Michigan State when he was asked what he felt the Wolverines proved during their remarkable turnaround these last few weeks.

“Proved to ourselves?” Morris said. “Not really to ourselves, but to other people _ that we’re better than what they expected at the beginning of the season, and that anything is possible.”

Morris was talking about his team, but he could just as easily have been describing his own ascent during a stellar sophomore season.

Back in October, there was talk that Michigan might be the worst team in the Big Ten. Now, the Wolverines have a legitimate chance to reach the NCAA tournament thanks to their talented point guard.

The Wolverines won only 15 games in 2009-10, with none of their returning players averaging more than 7.4 points per game. Morris started toward the end of that season but averaged only 4.4 points and went scoreless in his last two games.

Fast forward a year, and Morris is one of the country’s most improved players. He’s averaging a team-high 15.1 points and 6.8 assists, and is at the center of everything Michigan (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) does offensively.

“I feel like I’ve grown,” Morris said. “The coaching staff has helped increase my knowledge of the game and just taught me how to be a better leader.”

Morris started the season strong, contributing double-digit assists in six of his first 14 games, but difficult times lay ahead.

Morris was held out of the starting lineup for the Big Ten opener against Purdue for what coach John Beilein called “disregarding some of our core values.” The Wolverines lost that game by 23 points and started 1-6 in conference play.

After a loss to Minnesota, players held a meeting and Morris met with the coaching staff. Then he led Michigan to its first win at Michigan State in 14 years. Morris played 40 minutes in the 61-57 victory, finishing with 17 points and eight assists.

That was the start of an 8-3 stretch to end the regular season, which the Wolverines capped by completing a sweep of the Spartans with a 70-63 victory on Saturday.

“Our young guys have played a lot of minutes right now,” Beilein said. “I think Darius has looked at how he’s playing and what works best for his teammates and continues to go after that.”

The 6-foot-4 Morris is a bit of an anomaly in Beilein’s offense, which places a premium on outside shooting. Morris has made only 15 shots all season from 3-point range, easily the fewest of any Michigan guard receiving significant playing time.

It hasn’t mattered. With his ball-handling and ability to finish around the basket _ not to mention his impressive vision _ Morris can make a big impact without shooting much from the perimeter.

“It’s hard to contain him one on one,” teammate Stu Douglass said. “We run our sets and sometimes we get switches, get mismatches on him. He just exploits them.”

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Morris missed a big free throw toward the end of a home game against Wisconsin last month, and the Badgers went down to the other end and made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win.

Even the euphoria of Saturday’s win over Michigan State was interrupted briefly by a spat between Morris and Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas after Morris dribbled behind his back to elude a couple defenders, then went in for a layup in the final seconds.

But like the rest of this young Michigan team _ which has no seniors _ Morris appears to be maturing. Along with freshman guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan, Morris could be part of a bright future in Ann Arbor.

“You work hard, you can accomplish a lot of things, as long as you stay humble and hungry and keep working at it,” Morris said. “I think that’s the story of the season.”

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