On paper, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s Big Ten home opener against Penn State didn’t look like much of a challenge.
But then came the pregame announcement that senior guard Caris LeVert was out with a lower-left leg injury sustained late in the game against Illinois on Wednesday. And then when the game started, junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. had three shots blocked in the first five minutes, turned the ball over three times and was sent to the bench in favor of junior guard Andrew Dakich.
Suddenly, things felt eerily similar to last season, when the Wolverines stumbled to a 3-7 finish in conference play with both LeVert and Walton out due to injury. Suddenly, the game against the Nittany Lions didn’t look like a shoo-in anymore.
Then, after six 3-pointers, three layups and a 24-4 run, it did again.
Michigan’s explosive first half — in which the Wolverines shot 66 percent from the floor and made 10 of 15 3-point attempts — caught Penn State completely off guard and showed that when even just a few Michigan players are “on,” they can win without their stars.
“We watched a ton of tape, with LeVert, without LeVert,” said Penn State coach Pat Chambers. “(But) they were terrific (today). They were sharing the ball…they played hard. It was almost like LeVert was out and they wanted to show that they could do it.”
Aside from the lights-out 3-point shooting, the Wolverines excelled thanks in large part thanks to a heightened energy on the floor.
Junior forward Zak Irvin was visibly pumped up after making his first three 3-pointers of the game, making it his first game of the year with more than two. Junior forward Mark Donnal continued his sudden resurgence with his second straight game scoring in double figures, picking up 16 hard-earned points in his first start since November.
And Dakich, the perpetual sparkplug, was a picture of energy every minute he was on the floor, celebrating and encouraging his teammates. Dakich couldn’t even contain himself when he was on the bench — at the end of the first half, a Penn State full-court buzzer-beater fell well short and Dakich, while running from his seat on the bench to the tunnel, emphatically swatted the ball away like a volleyball player.
“That tells me a lot about this team,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They came out and played with great energy and togetherness, and we had a heck of a first half.”
LeVert’s injury — which occurred when he stepped on an Illinois player’s foot with three minutes remaining in Wednesday’s game — was reported to the media just minutes before tip-off. LeVert’s status remains day-to-day, and Beilein declined to share more specifics until more information is available.
Beilein and the players knew yesterday that LeVert wouldn’t play, though, and Beilein made it clear that the rest of the Wolverines would have to step their game up to a different level.
“We had to have more energy than we’ve ever had,” Beilein said. “We had to have guys just go out there and play basketball. You watch how we play through Caris a lot — we figured we weren’t gonna play through people as much. We had to just play basketball, and we were beautiful at it.”
With sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman scoring 14 points in LeVert’s place, Irvin and Donnal leading the team with 16 apiece, sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins adding 13 and redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson hitting three big 3-pointers, Michigan certainly was playing Beilein’s idea of “basketball.”
And even with no LeVert and barely a full half of Walton, that was more than enough.