Duncan Robinson heard the whistle and knew just what that meant.
He walked off the court with 2:07 left and the score tied against Houston on Saturday night — fouling out for just the fourth time in his career — knowing it could be his last time doing so in his Michigan career. But Robinson didn’t sulk or let the moment get to him.
He had one specific message for one specfic person: Isaiah Livers.
“Duncan told me when he fouled out, ‘Isaiah, there’s a reason why we’re both out here, why we both play the game,’” Livers recalled in the aftermath of Michigan’s second-round win over the Cougars. “‘You have talent, so believe in yourself. Have all confidence.’”
This has become a theme between the fifth-year senior on his way out the door and the freshman just scraping the surface of what he can become. It’s hardly an uncommon phenomenon for a veteran to take a younger player under his wing, to share words of wisdom and help guide what’s to come.
But even for two mild-mannered players, this close-knit relationship is one bred of unusual circumstances.
Robinson started the season the clearcut starter at the ‘4’ far more out of necessity than fit. He’s vascillated between a starter and an offensive bench threat his entire Michigan career. Never known for his defensive prowess against quicker and more athletic opponents, the ‘4’ was a peculiar fit borne out of positional scarcity after D.J. Wilson left unexpectedly for the NBA Draft.
“We all know Duncan Robinson is a mismatch ‘4,’ that we don’t have another answer right now, right?” said Michigan coach John Beilein after an early January game in Iowa. “D.J. Wilson was the answer this year, and he’s not here.”
So why not Livers?
“I mean, if you saw some of our practices (early in the season), you would question why we gave him a scholarship,” Beilein said.
But Livers was on scholarship, and the only scholarship player with a natural fit at the ‘4’ at that. If circumstances had been different, the freshman likely would have seen limited minutes, if any at all. Instead, his opportunity blossomed into real growth quicker than Beilein could have imagined. Real growth led to real minutes. Real minutes led to real production.
In a six-game stretch in January, Livers shot 10-of-16 from 3-point range, averaging 9.3 points per game in that span while providing a physical upgrade defensively.
This, coupled with prolonged shooting struggles from Robinson, soon sparked a competition for the starting role. It was a team captain fighting the demons of a disappointing senior season up against a freshman starting to figure out how he could help right away.
Livers was the “stretch-four” of the future and the stopgap of the present.
On Jan. 13 against Michigan State, Livers offically won out. Beilein inserted him in the starting lineup at Breslin Center in an 83-73 upset win over Michigan State. And he hasn’t left the starting lineup since, aside from a minor ankle injury that kept him out of a January win at Wisconsin.
For Robinson, the benching was rock-bottom, further sending his senior season spiraling out of control. Until it wasn’t.
Since that Wisconsin game, Robinson has re-discovered his shot, shooting 49 percent from 3-point range and scoring in double-figures in seven of 11 games. Despite Livers’ regular role in the starting lineup, Robinson has regained the bulk of the minutes, earning more playing time than Livers in 14 consecutive games.
But through it all, the relationship between sage veteran and eager youngster has only strengthened.
“I always try to be in his ear,” Robinson, increasingly introspective by the week, said early Sunday morning. “His biggest thing is, he doesn’t realize how good he is, how talented he is. Once he can tap into that, his whole career will take off. He’s been so good for us already, but he’s just getting going. He’s got to continue to chase it, chase it, like he was when he was coming for the starting spot that he ultimately ended up winning. I’m happy that I’ve got a guy, when I foul out, that can go in there and battle the way he can.”
Added Livers after the first round of the Big Ten Tournament: “I don’t know why, I don’t know what it is, but people were just saying, ‘Maybe they don’t get along. Maybe they do.’ No way. We get along. It’s his senior year. I wanna do it big for him. … All love. We talk all the time, he helps me all the time. Just a great leader and a great veteran.”
Either could have let the competition breed resentment. Robinson could have sulked after being benched for a freshman, just as Livers could have questioned his decreasing role as the season winds to a close.
Neither happened, and now both are better off for it.
Which brings us back to Saturday night and the moment the mentor needed the mentee to help prolong his career. Livers, throwing the inbound dart right on the money to senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, certainly did his part in the miraculous win.
“I didn’t want Duncan to go out that way,” Livers said after the game. “That’s my guy. Senior fouling out like that, I couldn’t (let it) go.”
That wasn’t Isaiah Livers’ response to helping save Robinson’s career or how he felt coming into a tight game with the season on the line. That was Livers’ answer, unprompted, on how it felt to be going to Los Angeles.