Isaiah Livers caught the ball in rhythm as he has all season. He squared to the hoop and lifted with the same form he has all season.
The difference? This time it went in.
In a place Michigan hasn’t won in seven seasons, in an arena enlivened by Iowa’s quick 6-0 spurt, Livers motioned to the now-silenced crowd and lifted his fingers to his lips.
The three-point stroke looked the same. The confidence from the freshman was brand new.
“From here on, it just makes me play with a chip on my shoulder,” Livers said. “I know what I can do. I know what I’m capable of. At first, I was second-thinking everything. There was always a second thought that I had, and I think that was holding me back early in the season. I think now I have a lot more confidence than I had.”
On the next possession, Livers caught a swing pass in the corner and faced the rim again. This time, with the calm of a skilled veteran, Livers offered a slight pump fake. His defender bought it, offering him a clear lane to an easy layup.
A disgruntled (to put it mildly) Fran McCaffery called timeout, but Michigan never slowed down on its way to a 75-68 win at Iowa.
Coming into the game, Livers was shooting just 28 percent from beyond the arc and averaging just three points in his 12.1 minutes per game.
Michigan coach John Beilein has long suggested Livers would eventually develop a long-range jumper; most Beilein-coached players do. For Livers, that shot is the key to unlocking the treasure trove of skills he possesses — offensively and defensively.
“Coach (Beilein) works with me after practices, every practice we work on my jump shot,” Livers said. “So I think (the key is) just having a positive mindset, and seeing the ball go through the basket.”
Throughout the season, much of Livers’ value has remained intangible — or at least less visible. Paired next to Wagner, Livers has often provided a necessary defensive upgrade at the other frontcourt position, and averages 3.6 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes on the other end. Until Tuesday, his role had been clear and rigid.
But if his shot begins to drop — and he made each of his three attempts Tuesday — his potential now and in the future seems far greater.
“I think that I could be more of a Duncan Robinson,” Livers offered for how his role might change with a developed stroke. “I could shot fake, get the defender in the air, and I could go right past him and get to the bucket or make open passes for my teammates.”
But, of course, it was the stark difference between the skillsets of Livers and Robinson that told the tale of Tuesday’s win.
Michigan was 23 points better with Livers on the court than without. It was 18 points worse with Duncan Robinson on the floor than without him. There’s correlation and causation; that is unmistakeably the latter.
Much of that can be attributed to the matchup problem with Robinson — a defensively-challenged wing — guarding Iowa’s Tyler Cook.
Cook was a physical presence who gave Robinson and junior center Moritz Wagner problems all evening. With Robinson unable to handle Cook’s aggression, Beilein turned to Livers.
“Duncan Robinson is a mismatch ‘4’ that we don’t have another answer right now. DJ Wilson was the answer this year and he isn’t here this year,” Beilein said. “That’s hard for Duncan to guard some of these guys, so Duncan has been filling in and Isaiah should be playing more in the future. He has been working on that jump shot and his numbers are good in practice. He hasn’t done it in games, but maybe this is a breakthrough.”
Tuesday night was a glimpse into an ever-growing light at the end of Livers’ lengthy developmental tunnel. It’s unreasonable to expect Livers to fill the shoes of DJ Wilson right away, but the long-term comparison is not far-fetched.
With a newfound shot and growing confidence, there are sure to be more crowd-silencers down the road.