This isn’t what was supposed to happen for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
They were supposed to be a deep, experienced team capable of beating elite teams and making noise in the Big Ten.
They were supposed to lean on senior leadership from Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, the faces of the program and the last two players remaining from the 2013 run to the Final Four.
They were supposed to rebound from a disappointing 2014-15 campaign and make an NCAA Tournament run, and maybe even more, as John Beilein’s teams have become accustomed to.
But now, the team’s leaders sit on the sidelines without uniforms, no win seems like a guarantee, and press conferences that were once full of optimism and anticipation are now dominated by vague injury status updates, questions of mental toughness and a fear that all hope is lost.
Albrecht’s career is over, after nagging hip injuries and concern for his future well-being proved to be the only things that could keep him off the court. The Wolverines don’t have depth — they’re really only six or seven players deep, with no players beyond that showing any signs of making a positive impact in a game. They’ve beaten one elite team, No. 2 Maryland, but they were run out of their own building twice last week in blowout losses to Indiana and rival Michigan State.
And in perhaps the most mysterious story arc of the season, what initially looked like a minor lower-left-leg injury sustained against Illinois on Dec. 30 has turned into a 10-game, 40-day absence (and counting) for LeVert, the Wolverines’ unquestioned best player.
It’s been labeled a day-to-day injury from the start, but as weeks turned into a month without any further clarity on what happened in the first place, LeVert remained held out of practice despite showing up to games without crutches, a walking boot or any other obvious signs of injury.
There were rumblings of LeVert potentially returning against the Hoosiers or Spartans, with Beilein saying he was finally practicing. But when he took the court before both games, LeVert was in sweatpants and barely even touched a basketball.
“I don’t even know where he is right now,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters in East Lansing leading up to the rivalry game. “I’ve never seen anything so quiet in all my life. I guess they’ve got better media than we’ve got, ’cause you guys would’ve dug in.”
He’s partially right — LeVert’s situation has been shrouded in mystery for weeks, but it’s not for lack of trying on the media’s part.
Beilein has been asked about LeVert at every press conference since the injury, so much to the point his tone borders on frustration when he spits the noncommittal clichés, “He did more today than yesterday” or “I’m not gonna share a timetable.”
Might LeVert be voluntarily holding himself back? Not likely — according to roommate Derrick Walton Jr., they talk all the time about when he’ll make his return to the court. After all, he could’ve left the Wolverines for the NBA last year and nobody would have blamed him, but he came back to help the team.
And why is Beilein so cautious and guarded about the situation?
To some, it might seem unnecessary, but more likely, it’s just classic Beilein — being ultra-conservative, never tipping his hand to opposing teams, never wanting to share more than he has to.
And really, all things considered, why should he be hasty? Why should he rush LeVert back? After all, LeVert has a professional career to think about, and considering this is the second straight year he’s missed substantial time with a lower-body injury, bringing him back too soon and risking re-injury could have catastrophic effects, for both him and Michigan as a whole.
For a while, it didn’t really seem to matter that Beilein was playing it safe. In LeVert’s absence, Michigan played tough on the road against teams like No. 18 Purdue and No. 4 Iowa, beat Maryland at home and took care of all the lower-tier Big Ten opponents it was expected to.
But now things have gotten ugly, and the typical questions about leadership and mental toughness have come to the forefront. Suddenly there are no illusions that the team is fine without LeVert — it’s letting games get way too out of hand way too quickly.
Beilein has brushed off those excuses, claiming the Wolverines simply aren’t good enough to hang with teams of that caliber, regardless of who is injured and who is healthy, or who is leading the team and who is “mentally tough.”
And even with LeVert out, leadership is probably not the problem. Walton and fellow junior Zak Irvin have been thrust into the role before, gaining wisdom beyond their years thanks to Michigan’s NBA draft turnover and injury problems of the last few seasons.
The two are fine leaders — Irvin went on a fiery outburst during a second-half timeout against Michigan State, questioning the team’s resolve at a volume that startled many members of the nearby students in the Maize Rage; and just a day after Walton vowed to “make his presence felt” against the Wolverines’ in-state rival, he engaged in a physical, back-and-forth battle with the Spartans’ Bryn Forbes.
But despite Irvin and Walton’s best efforts, none of that was enough this week, and it probably won’t be enough going forward. According to Beilein, it’s tough to stop a team with a player like Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who can take over a game by making a few plays himself.
The thing is, the Wolverines have one of those players, too — he just hasn’t seen the floor since December.
“Take a player out of the lineup like Denzel (or LeVert), it’s tough,” Izzo said after the game Saturday. “(Beilein) won’t make an excuse, so I’ll make one for him.”
Of course, Beilein may be right — maybe the Wolverines really aren’t good enough to hang with teams like Indiana and Michigan State, even if LeVert were healthy. Maybe the Wolverines’ win over Maryland was a fluke, and maybe people’s expectations are just too high.
Still, the Wolverines may be able to get into the NCAA Tournament — they already have 17 wins, a few more winnable contests on the schedule and résumé wins over the Terrapins and No. 24 Texas to go with a name-recognition advantage. But if Michigan wants to avoid getting its doors blown off by an elite team yet again in the tournament’s first weekend, then it better hope LeVert’s mysterious timetable doesn’t keep getting pushed back.
LeVert alone may not be enough to save the Wolverines’ season, and his long-term health should always come first, but one thing is for certain: Michigan sure could use him right now.
Jacob Gase can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JacobGase.