Max Marcovitch: Increased role for freshmen raises Michigan’s ceiling
To Michigan coach John Beilein, it wasn’t so much a dismissive comment as it was the norm of life in college basketball.
In a close win over Central Michigan in November, Beilein’s three freshmen combined to play four scoreless minutes in the second half. Beilein uttered a platitude that seemed more apt to fit your father’s era of college basketball.
“I thought in the second half, we go down, it wasn’t a time for freshmen to be on the floor.”
That came against a Mid-American Conference team that has since lost to Eastern Michigan and Kent State in back-to-back games. Trust is fickle, but rarely final.
Which underscores the importance of Beilein’s choice to go with three freshmen together — Eli Brooks, Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers — Tuesday night, in the most consequential half of the Wolverines’ season to date. Checking in with 12:29 left in the game, Brooks and Poole joined Livers on the court, down four points to No. 5 Purdue, with an upset win in the balance.
Now that’s trust. And it’s trust each has earned in the two months since the Chippwas came to town.
Poole was the highest recruit. Brooks earned a starting opportunity early in the season. Livers was perhaps the least likely of the three to make a major contribution this season. And yet, not only has Livers done just that, but coupling his emergence with an increased role might raise the team’s ceiling moreso than any other player.
With his play lately, it seems only a matter of time before Livers overtakes Robinson for the starting spot. And for good reason.
Livers has made 12 of his last 15 3-pointers, and while that 80-percent clip is clearly unsustainable he doesn’t have to be an elite shooter to be a clear upgrade over Robinson — who’s still hovering around a career-low 36 percent from deep on the season.
Tuesday, Livers’ defense on Purdue forward Vincent Edwards changed the game. Against Iowa, his physicality on forward Tyler Cook did the same. His offensive boon has merely been a bonus, but a bonus that does not appear to be a mirage.
“Duncan and Livers both could really play,” said Purdue guard Carsen Edwards. “But (Livers) is really athletic. I mean, he can move well. He matches up well with Vincent (Edwards).”
Added Beilein: “I think Isaiah is playing way above what I expected from two months ago. He couldn’t figure out what was going on on defense. I thought between him and Edwards, that was a great duel between a senior and a freshman.”
With Michigan clinging to a 67-66 lead with just under three minutes left, Livers caught the ball on the wing. Purdue forward Matt Haarms, adjusting to Livers’ newfound shooting stroke, closed out quickly on the freshman, who calmly gave a head fake and dribbled past Haarms, used his athleticism to finesse past the help defender, and laid the ball in over the 7-foot-3 Haarms’ outstretched arms.
It’s a play Livers wouldn’t have made a week ago, much less a month ago.
Elsewhere on the wing, there aren’t many minutes to pry from redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, but Jordan Poole is making Beilein try to find some anyway.
Poole has flashed the substance to match his trademark flair, adding an energetic dynamic to the team each time he steps on the court. Poole has garnered a reputation for his inclination to shoot any time, from anywhere, but he has actually been an efficient scorer in his fluctuating minutes.
After Tuesday’s eight-point performance on just four shots, Poole is now shooting close to 50 percent from the field, including a 42-percent clip from deep. More impressively, Poole scores a team-high 0.64 points per minute on the floor.
He entered the game in the first half Tuesday with Michigan trailing by 10 and immediately banked in a three-pointer. The new fan favorite jogged down the court with a smirk and shrug. But spurred by their defense, he and Livers ignited a quick 14-2 run to pull the Wolverines out of the deficit. When Poole exited the game five minutes later, the Boilermakers’ lead was down to just three.
With time winding down in the second half, Beilein even considered playing Abdur-Rahkman at point guard — a move he has not made all season — just to fit Poole on the court in crunch time.
“(The moment) certainly isn’t (too big) for Jordan Poole,” Beilein said. “He wants it. We’ve got to continue to find ways to get him on the floor. I was actually thinking of — until (sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson) hit those two threes — to let Muhammad (Ali Abdur-Rahkman) run the point. But all of a sudden (Simpson) hits the two threes.”
That’s certainly a long way from the “DNPs” he was collecting mere months ago.
Brooks’ role has diminished recently, which may have more to do with the growth of Simpson than any fault to Brooks. The freshman still holds down the backup point guard minutes ahead of fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons, which says plenty about the young guard’s maturity and ability.
A far cry from precluding freshmen from playing in the second half, Beilein is now finding as many ways as possible to utilize his first-year players.
It’s proof that, as Beilein said, the moment is no longer too big for the freshmen.
As a result, their best moments might just be in front of them.