Injured and ill, Wolverines hobble into Piscataway in search of fifth Big Ten win

Luna Anna Archey/Daily
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By Lev Facher, Managing Editor
Published January 19, 2015

John Beilein was frank in assessing the Michigan men’s basketball team’s roster prior to its Tuesday night tilt with Rutgers in Piscataway.

“We have more injured or sick players than we have healthy players right now,” Beilein said.

The Wolverines’ eighth-year coach is barely exaggerating. As few as six players are entirely healthy and ready to contribute major minutes against a Rutgers team that upset then-No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 11, and the rest of Michigan’s roster is hurt, sick, ineligible or some combination thereof.

Following the team’s announcement Sunday that junior guard Caris LeVert is out for the remainder of the season with a left foot injury, the Wolverines’ injury tally stands at four. Freshman forward D.J. Wilson may redshirt and has yet to be cleared for full-court play following a December knee sprain. Freshman forward Kameron Chatman is questionable thanks to a knee injury suffered Saturday against Northwestern. And sophomore guard Derrick Walton Jr. remains limited by an injured toe on his right foot which has plagued him throughout the year.

To make matters worse, freshman forward Ricky Doyle’s status is uncertain thanks to an illness, and junior guard Spike Albrecht is questionable because of an upper respiratory infection.

Per Beilein, Albrecht has been “cleared to give it a shot and see how he feels.”

That leaves just nine healthy players. But sophomore guard Andrew Dakich hasn’t played this season, and likely won’t — Beilein has said previously that Dakich will redshirt so that he has a fifth year of eligibility remaining should he choose to transfer. Duncan Robinson is also sitting out the season, because NCAA transfer policy precludes him from playing in the year following his move to Ann Arbor from Division III Williams College. But Robinson wouldn’t have been available, anyway — he suffered a sprained ankle in recent weeks, preventing him from contributing to the scout team during practice.

The injuries have depleted the scout team. They even forced Beilein to take advantage of an NCAA rule that allows coaches to occasionally bring in former players to practice with the team; he invited David Merritt, a former Michigan point guard and 2009 graduate, to ensure that 5-on-5 competition was an option in practice.

Freshman forward Austin Hatch doesn’t figure to play much of a role, either — he has appeared in just two regular-season games and has yet to record a made basket for the Wolverines.

Of the remaining six healthy players, Beilein cited sophomore forward Sean Lonergan as a player who will see more time on the court. But experience, as with the rest of the team, is an issue — his career high in minutes played is seven.

“He’s played every position for us but point guard,” Beilein said. “He’s done a lot of things … (we need him to) be the best he can and be as efficient as he can.”

To stop Rutgers, the Wolverines will need to stop the high-flying scoring duo of Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack, who average 14.7 and 12.8 points per game, respectively.

Jack, a forward who stands 6-foot-9, will be a tough task for Michigan’s available big men in sophomore Mark Donnal, senior Max Bielfeldt and potentially Doyle, pending his recovery.

Mack, a 5-foot-10 guard, is a potential defensive match for freshman guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman if Albrecht and Walton are entirely unable to go.

The injuries, Beilein acknowledged, have flipped Michigan’s status in the Big Ten — the Wolverines were among the conference’s “hunted” teams following a Final Four appearance in 2013 and a trip to the Elite Eight the following season.

“We’re certainly hunters for the rest of the year,” Beilein said.

Beyond newfound opportunities for players like Lonergan, along with Abdur-Rahkman and fellow freshman guard Aubrey Dawkins, the injury void creates an obvious opportunity for sophomore forward Zak Irvin to step up.

“It’s a great opportunity for Zak to continue to grow in his game,” Beilein said. “He’s still doing some things that he did not do last year. Last year he was a shooter, and he defended OK.”

This year, according to Beilein, Irvin has seen consistent growth as a passer, rebounder and defender. Tuesday night represents a prime opportunity for the 6-foot-6 swingman to take the next step — as Beilein said Monday, LeVert’s 19 shots and 39 minutes per game are now there for the taking.