Mark Calcagno: Livers could be Wolverines’ answer at the '4'
It took Iowa mere seconds to expose the weakness Michigan’s basketball team endured without forward D.J. Wilson.
On the first possession of Tuesday’s matchup, Hawkeyes forward Tyler Cook snapped the ball behind his back, took two clean steps and threw down a highlight-reel dunk.
Left in the dust was junior forward Mortiz Wagner — unable to match the ballhandler’s quickness.
Minutes later, Cook took advantage of Duncan Robinson. Utilizing his six-foot-nine and 255-pound frame, Cook drove baseline to back the fifth-year senior down with little resistance, forcing Robinson to foul.
“We all know Duncan Robinson is a mismatch ‘4,’ that we don't have another answer (for) right now,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “D.J. Wilson was the answer (last) year, and he's not here.”
That was apparent Tuesday. Robinson finished minus-18 and joined the hobbled Wagner on the bench during crunch time. Cook, meanwhile, scored 28 points on 10-for-15 shooting to lead all scorers — just one of the outbursts Michigan has surrendered against sizable and skilled forwards.
In November, Luke Maye scored 27 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead North Carolina to a comfortable win. A week later, Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate combined for 32 points to key the come-from-behind Buckeye victory.
Sure, Michigan — despite a dramatic turnaround this season statistically — isn’t one to prioritize defense. Beilein primarily thinks about floor spacing and shooting. Robinson provides that, even when if he does create mismatches for the Wolverines defense.
But Tuesday, freshman forward Isaiah Livers showed he can provide the best of both worlds. In 27 minutes, Livers had a career-high 13 points along with two rebounds and three assists. And he was equally as impressive on the defensive end.
Midway through the second half, Livers thrust his hand into the passing lane between point guard Jordan Bohannon and Cook — his second steal of the night.
And in the paint, the 230-pound Livers held his own, posting a positive-21 plus/minus rating.
“Now he’s engaged on defense,” said sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. “He’s getting 50-50 balls, he’s playing good defense, which we need out of him.”
Of course, Michigan doesn’t mind Livers’ offensive showing. Looking more confident than ever, he knocked down a trio of 3s as part of a five-for-six effort from the floor.
His shooting stroke was even reminiscent of the sharp-shooter above him in the rotation.
With the Wolverines offense stagnant, the Hawkeyes embarked on a 7-0 run to cut their deficit to single digits with roughly 10 minutes to play. But on the next possession, Livers spotted up from the arc, caught a feed from Simpson and buried a triple as the shot clock expired.
“I think that I could be more of a Duncan Robinson,” Livers said. “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.”
Added Beilein: “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 a breakthrough.”
Plenty of players like Maye and Cook line Michigan’s remaining schedule. This month alone, it will face two highly-rated NBA prospects in Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. and Purdue’s Isaac Haas.
Already, opposing frontcourts have been instrumental in two of the Wolverines’ three losses this season.
Tuesday, they came out on top — thanks in part to Livers’ blending of offense and defense while playing for Robinson down the stretch.
Now, if Livers can extend that beyond Tuesday, the freshman could be the forward Beilein has been searching for.