NEW YORK CITY, NY. — The Michigan men’s basketball team’s locker room was rattling after it dismantled Nebraska, 77-58, to reach the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines’ Jan. 18 defeat in Lincoln was an afterthought. A date with then-No. 2 Michigan State loomed.
Reporters shuffled into the tight guest locker room, elbows were bumped and recorders were stuffed in the student-athletes’ faces. Scrums accumulated around usual suspects — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Moritz Wagner. Finding a player without a smile was hard.
Except for Jordan Poole. The freshman guard furrowed his brows and asked antsy journalists to wait a second before he would answer questions. He scoured the room, shouting.
“Where my best friend at? Where my best friend at?”
Poole’s missing best friend was fellow freshman Isaiah Livers. The 6-foot-7 forward simply hadn’t reached the locker room yet as he traipsed slowly off the court and past the team showers, but best friends don’t leave each other behind. Once Livers had entered the room, the two embraced and sat down in their typical spots — side by side lockers — and faced the media.
“He’s a big drama guy,” Livers said of Poole.
Drama, as they would soon discover, was fitting for the occasion. The two freshmen and the rest of Michigan would theatrically display impeccable chemistry in their next two contests en route to a Big Ten Tournament Championship.
Their season isn’t over yet, but Poole and Livers can already check off one of their goals on their college bucket list.
“It feels amazing,” Poole said after beating Purdue in the finals. “Being able to go out in a situation like this and beat (Michigan State and Purdue) and Nebraska and Iowa, it’s just amazing. Being able to experience something like this at such a historic arena puts the cherry on top.”
Playing high-stakes games at Madison Square Garden is usually enough to give any first-year player pause. But for a guy as boisterous as Poole, that isn’t necessarily true. He had played at the Garden when he was in high school at La Lumiere, one of the nation’s premier high school programs.
For Livers, on the other hand, the bright lights and spacious arena were a shock to the system. The Kalamazoo, Mich. native described his high school days as spent in a “little, tiny gym” absent of the grandiose pageantry. It was big enough to contend and win Michigan Mr. Basketball, but not enough to walk into the World’s Most Famous Arena without awe. Like Poole, though, Livers found comfort in it.
“I like the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden,” Livers said. “I felt it right during shoot around. I was like ‘Dang, this is pretty big.’ That just kinda pushed me to play better.”
Poole and Livers weren’t significant contributors in the tournament — they combined to post just 6.8 points and 4.6 boards each contest. Though it was a lackluster weekend for the two, they still had an opportunity to marvel at the big stage.
The pair took time to admire the history of MSG when they first arrived. When they settled into the New York Knicks’ locker room on Thursday to play Iowa — the only time the team suited up there during the tournament — they gazed at the wooden lockers. They saw the names of two former Michigan greats embellished on them, and harbored an inclination to be like them in the future.
“You got Tim Hardaway Jr. over there, you got Trey Burke,” Livers said, pointing out their lockers. “They’re doing what we wanna do in a couple years. It just motivates me to go out there and play hard.”
Added Poole: “We see guys who were in the same situation that we were. They just kept working, kept fighting and they were able to accomplish their dreams. At the end of the day, that’s what you play basketball for. … We find it motivating.”
Another Michigan great, 2017 graduate and current G-League player Zak Irvin, has been keeping tabs on Poole and Livers. And when Irvin, who attended the matchup against the Hawkeyes, embraced the two freshmen in the locker room afterwards, they conversed like they were longtime teammates.
“The guys before me did the same thing to when I came in even though I didn’t get to play with them,” Irvin said of his relationship with the freshmen. “They still took me under their arms. It’s the same thing I’m doing with them. They’re a talented group. They’ll be leading Michigan here in the future.”
Between the commotion of games in Madison Square Garden and the noise from teammates and former players coming in, basketball engulfed the social lives of Poole and Livers. The team took a brief walk around Times Square before their first game, but didn’t do much else besides mimicking plays in their hotel’s ballroom and lounging in their rooms.
It really was a business trip for the wide-eyed freshmen. And even if they didn’t cause too much of a stir, they still deemed their experience unimaginable.
With the two best friends drenched in water, egging on a dancing John Beilein as they celebrated the Big Ten Tournament Championship, they looked ready to conquer the next big stage in March Madness. It was clear that business was booming.