LeVert’s double-double a sign of the consistency Michigan’s been seeking

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 31, 2014

Last year in Big Ten play, Caris LeVert collected 19 rebounds. Total.

Divide that by 18 games and you get an average of 1.1 per game. But on Thursday night against Purdue, the sophomore guard gathered nine rebounds in the first half alone.

Finishing with a career-high 11 to go with 14 points — good for his first career double-double — LeVert finally interrupted an odd streak of his own that has existed throughout the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 10-game winning streak and the past 11 games.

While the 10th-ranked Wolverines have played well over the stretch, the inconsistency of LeVert’s play has stood out.

Following a 17-point, eight-rebound performance against Michigan State last Saturday, LeVert figured to be vital in Michigan’s four-shooters-and-a-center lineup against Purdue (3-5 Big Ten, 13-8 overall), the 17th-leading rebounding squad in the nation.

And he was. Collecting boards off misses — nine of the defensive variety — LeVert proved pivotal in a game defined as much by Michigan’s offensive firepower as it was by its sloppiness. The Wolverines committed a season-high 16 turnovers.

“It was going to be one of those nights where the guards would have to come in and clean up for us,” said fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan. “And we just do a great job of boxing out their forwards and their bigs while our guards come in and clean up.”

Throughout the season, it’s become easy to note Levert’s improvement in the scoring column. As evidenced by his four 20-plus point scoring outputs, LeVert has proven able to be the Wolverines’ No. 1 scoring option as well as their second and third option on nights when sophomore guard Nik Stauskas has taken over games.

Michigan coach John Beilein hasn’t spent much time complaining about Levert’s inconsistency since Michigan (8-0 Big Ten, 16-4 overall) started winning big games, but in the games LeVert did score, his rebounding followed.

Before Thursday, LeVert had averaged 15.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in games he scored 10 points or more. While that irregularity can be cited easily when discussing LeVert’s play, Beilein knows that a night like LeVert had Thursday ranges back to last year, when Beilein realized he had to burn LeVert’s redshirt.

“It’s the same thing we’ve seen with Caris in practice this last year,” Beilein said. “We needed to burn this redshirt. He does these things and he’s playing off residual action like (sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III) did last year. He just finds spots. There’s very few things called for him, other than he’s in space where he can attack or get open for 3’s. Getting him to become a knockdown shooter has been important.”

LeVert’s game relies on him finding open looks, and Beilein’s strategy tries to deliver them. With Stauskas playing so well and freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr. coming on as a second option, LeVert hasn’t needed to have a scoring outburst every game for Michigan to succeed.

That’s why Thursday, with LeVert’s help on the boards, his scoring still came even though he wasn’t actively seeking to be aggressive.

“He’s all over the place defensively,” Morgan said. “And he’s one of the more crafty guys in getting in the lane and finding people. He’s getting better and better at that. He’s got a skill that not many people have — getting in the paint when he wants to.”

With LeVert focusing on defense Thursday — he tallied two blocks and three steals — Michigan thrived on offense, shooting 61 percent from the field on the game. Acting as that third scorer, LeVert snapped his streak of inconsistency and helped Michigan further separate itself from the crowded armada of teams in the middle of the Big Ten.