Reporting from St. Louis — With his team trailing Northern Iowa at halftime Friday night, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo took a moment in the locker room to critique a couple of players, including Raymar Morgan.
When it comes to criticizing Morgan, Izzo usually is second in line.
"It's not coaches getting on him," Izzo said. "It's Raymar getting on Raymar."
Izzo describes Morgan as a "rock" and says he is indisputably the Spartans' most consistent player.
That wasn't always a term that could be applied to Morgan, a 6-foot-8 senior forward. But through the last seven games, he's shooting 57.7% and averaging 16 points — about four more than his season average.
When the fifth-seeded Spartans face sixth-seeded Tennessee on Sunday in the NCAA tournament's Midwest Regional final at the Edward Jones Dome, how Morgan bounces back from a foul-plagued game against the Panthers in which he scored seven points could be a key in what promises to be a physical game.
The Volunteers advanced to their first Elite Eight when they upset second-seeded Ohio State.
"He's a tough, physical guy," said Tennessee's J.P. Prince, who probably will guard Morgan. "He's a big guy. I think you want to accept the challenge. As a player, you want to play against the best. I know he's one of the best in Michigan State history."
With point guard Kalin Lucas out with an injury and a few other starters banged up, the Spartans can't afford to have many players become invisible — especially not Morgan, who is one of five players in Michigan State history to reach 1,500 career points and 700 career rebounds.
"We realize there can't be any mistakes," Morgan said. "We're just feeding off that."
Morgan has helped Michigan State to the NCAA tournament in each of his seasons, and they reached the championship game before losing to North Carolina last year. Last season, his list of ailments was nearly longer than his list of accomplishments, though he scored in double digits in a Final Four victory over Connecticut.
But for a team that struggled with consistency this season, Morgan was at his steadiest.
After a tremendous Big Ten Conference tournament, Morgan started off the NCAA tournament by scoring 11 points against New Mexico in the first round and 17 against Maryland in the second round. He picked up some early fouls against Northern Iowa and shot two for four from the field.
Morgan is eager to prevent that rocky performance from becoming an avalanche.
"I wanted to come into this tournament being aggressive," Morgan said. "I had a lot to prove, and I wanted to show the world what I can do."
He hopes to have a few more chances to do so.