After spending two months rehabbing from a back procedure, Zak Irvin finally seemed ready for game action. Even if he wasn’t, the list of factors preventing the junior forward from seeing the floor wasn’t supposed to include LaVall Jordan’s fingers.
But in an accident thematically consistent with the Wolverines’ injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign, the Michigan assistant coach took Irvin out of commission for a brief moment in a recent practice by inadvertently poking him in the eye.
“He was in the locker room again with sort of a closed eye,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It’s been a rough thing for him.”
In the end, Irvin escaped the incident unscathed, and returned to the court Monday night in the Wolverines’ 88-68 win over Elon.
The comeback couldn’t have come at a better time.
With a matchup against Xavier looming, then a trip to the Bahamas that features games against No. 19 Connecticut and potentially Syracuse and No. 10 Gonzaga, the Wolverines can’t afford to continue playing a 12-man rotation. Irvin’s return to form, if it happens quickly, will only help bring the starting lineup into sharper focus.
Without Irvin, little was clear for the Wolverines, who haven’t established any semblance of a consistent rotation. If Irvin is capable of giving Michigan quality minutes at the ‘3’ or ‘4’ positions, the roles of swingmen like redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson and sophomore Aubrey Dawkins become more defined. The same is true for power-forward types like redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson and sophomore Kameron Chatman.
Beilein left the decision about a timetable for first appearing in game action up to Irvin.
“He came to me (Saturday) and said he wanted to play,” Beilein said. “I said, ‘Sleep on it. First thing on Sunday, when we start practice, tell me whether you’re going to play.’ ”
Irvin stuck with his initial decision, but was underwhelming on offense in his return, shooting 0-for-5 from the field in 15 minutes played.
The shooting woes were of no concern to Beilein, who said he’s using different criteria to evaluate the sharpshooting junior as he works to make up for lost time.
“Our defense changed the minute he walked into that game,” Beilein said. “I’m not, anymore, measuring him by whether he made 3s. I want to measure him by his defense, by his passing, all those things. Him, as a shooter? That will all come. I thought his shot looked great. It just didn’t go in.”
Irvin said he fought nerves initially, but felt comfortable once he checked into the game with 11:42 remaining in the first half.
“(I felt) a little rusty out there,” he said. “I was trying to do other things on the defensive end, trying to just share the ball out there (on offense). I know the shot will come.”
As is the case with senior guard Spike Albrecht, Irvin’s return is more a matter of fitness and comfort than it is physical limitation.
“Obviously, I’ve got to get back in game shape,” Irvin said. “I’m excited to get back out there Friday (against Xavier).”
While Irvin’s presence is invaluable, the Wolverines are faced with the difficult task of folding him back into their rotation against quality opposition, having missed an opportunity to do so in the three early-season blowouts.
Nonetheless, the change is a welcome one, even for the players who likely benefited from his absence and limitations. Robinson, for instance, scored 19 points in 18 minutes on Monday, and he played 18 minutes in an exhibition against Le Moyne and 15 in the season opener against Northern Michigan.
“It’s great to have him out there,” Robinson said. “He’s one of the best communicators we have. … He’s been practicing for a while, so just seeing him back out there has been good. I wouldn’t see any negatives in that.”