DES MOINES, Iowa — Isaiah Livers sat in front of his locker, next to Jordan Poole, as always. Separate scrums formed around both, but eventually, inevitably, their separate worlds crossed.
“Are you a better shooter than he is?” a reporter asked Livers.
Livers cracked a smile. “Percentages!”
This season, Livers has shot 45 percent from deep. Poole? Just 37 percent.
The Michigan men’s basketball team had just blown out Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Livers had scored a career-high 21 points — including a 4-for-6 performance from three — off the bench in just 22 minutes.
He oozed confidence then, playfully teasing Poole, the sharpshooter who hit one of the most famous shots in program history. Perhaps that confidence, too, was at a career high.
Ask anyone and they’ll tell you Livers is trending up going into the NCAA Tournament, due in large part to an uptick in confidence. Developing that has been a process, but now — after two years where he gained a starting role, then lost it, then got it back and lost it again — Livers is hitting a crescendo at just the right time.
As a freshman, Livers struggled with something similar to many freshmen in high-level college programs: He thought too much.
“Isaiah was no different than so many freshmen who come into Michigan, including myself,” former Michigan wing Duncan Robinson told The Daily. “In that your head is kinda spinning and you figure yourself out there thinking, more than just being a reactor and playing the game you’ve done your whole life.”
Eventually, Livers figured it out enough to take Robinson’s starting spot in mid-January. He was a defensive force at the power forward position who shot well from beyond the arc. But just a few weeks later, Livers injured his ankle in a loss at Northwestern. He only missed one game, but his performance afterward suffered — and his confidence slipped.
That game in Evanston was the last game the Wolverines lost until the national championship. There was Livers, a freshman, starting on a team that came 40 minutes from winning the whole thing. There was the maximum of mixed emotions — the team went further than anyone could have expected, but ultimately still lost the in the national title game. And there was the fact that through the whole postseason run Livers didn’t perform up to his usual standards.
Six-for-18 from the field. Only one made three — and that came in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
When Livers sat in front of reporters in October for the first time since Villanova cut down the nets for the national championship, he still remembered that he hadn’t made a 3-pointer in the NCAA Tournament. He remembered his poor performance. It stuck with him.
Then, he spoke about the importance of a short-term memory, of not dwelling on a drought like the one he had.
“I think that’s gonna help me a lot this year,” he said. “Just forget about my lack of confidence. … I’m a whole new person.”
After his red-hot Big Ten Tournament this year, it seems Livers heeded his own advice.
Just before school resumed for Livers’ sophomore year, he got hurt again. It was minor, but it affected his play for long enough that freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis — already a highly-touted recruit — asserted himself in early practices and a summer trip to Spain. From the beginning of the season, the power forward job was Brazdeikis’.
If Livers was ever disappointed at losing his spot, he didn’t show it. He simply said that he was happy to help the team however he could and that the only difference was who stood on the court for the jump ball. His priority was winning.
So when redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews — one of the key cogs in Michigan’s rotation — went down with an ankle injury of his own after a Feb. 24 loss to Michigan State, Livers jumped at the chance to step in. Livers, the coaching staff said, would take Matthews’ place and start on the wing, despite having played mostly power forward and center. The transition was nearly seamless.
“Whatever we ask him to do as a coaching staff, he always did it,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “And ultimately, when Charles got hurt, we said, ‘You’re gonna start,’ and he immediately stepped in. … There was no surprise, what Isaiah did.”
His first start, against Nebraska, Livers got his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. A week later, at Maryland, he scored 11 — including three triples.
Livers will say nothing changed, that he had the same approach as always whether he was starting or not. But those around him noticed a change.
“I just saw his confidence grow,” Matthews said. “And he was able to be out there and this might be the first time in his career that he was able to be out there and play through mistakes and when you’re able to do that you play freer.
“And his game just continues to evolve and he knew, through the good and the bad, he wasn’t coming out of the game. He didn’t have a sub at the time. So I think that was huge for Isaiah.”
Matthews’ ankle healed well enough to play in the Big Ten Tournament, albeit not at 100 percent. Livers went back to the bench. But where his production could have dwindled, it exploded.
He shot over 60 percent in all three of the Wolverines’ Big Ten Tournament games — 6-of-10 against Iowa, 8-of-10 against Minnesota and 3-of-5 against Michigan State — with a combined seven threes.
Maybe that was just the beginning.
“(I’ve) just seen him play with more confidence,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “(Beilein) told him that, ‘Hey, we need you to step up and make some plays.’ And those games Charles was out, you seen that. … He just stepped up to the plate, made some big shots and seen that tournament game against Minnesota. He caught fire.
“That’s what he’s capable of doing. He’s just gotta go out there and do it, night in and night out. That’s what he can do for this team, so throughout this tournament I can see him stepping up and doing the same things.”
This isn’t the same Livers that was caught in his head last year. This is a Livers who has learned to embrace his role — starter, bench player or super-sub; wing, power forward or center. This is a Livers who’s watched the almost-arrogant swagger of his teammates and let it rub off on him. This is a Livers who can hit dagger threes with panache.
And if he can continue his momentum, you’d better bet that next October, when he sits down to reflect on the season that was, he won’t be dwelling on a number.