John Beilein and Luke Yaklich had a message for Isaiah Livers.
A matchup with Maryland was coming up. The sophomore forward knew he would be called upon to back up the ‘4’ and ‘5’ positions. And the Terrapins happen to have two talented big men — chief among them Bruno Fernando, a 6-foot-10 behemoth who affects both ends of the court.
Livers, meanwhile, had lingering regrets about the last game the Michigan men’s basketball team faced a team with two physical bigs. On Feb. 1, the Wolverines lost in Iowa City as Livers found himself in foul trouble, playing just 14 minutes and forcing freshmen Brandon Johns and Colin Castleton to be thrown in the fire. Then, Livers couldn’t help his team nearly as much as he wanted.
Facing Maryland, Beilein and Yaklich told him what had to change.
“(Yaklich) and (Beilein) said I can’t outmuscle big guys with small ball,” Livers said. “You gotta move your feet and kinda just trick them. Trick the guy passing it.”
Combined, Livers and junior center Jon Teske — a more traditional big — held Fernando to zero points in the first half. Terrapins forward Jalen Smith, meanwhile, had six at the ‘4’ position, four of which came with freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis guarding him.
But in the second half, the nine-point lead the Wolverines had built up started to dissipate. In the first five minutes, Fernando scored a hook shot, a dunk and a layup — then got Teske his second foul. Teske, who had just two points up until then, came out.
In many games, that would have been where it unraveled — especially when Johns, Teske’s replacement, instantly picked up two fouls on the same possession. But Beilein took the risk and put Teske back in along with Livers.
After that, Fernando had six points, Smith had two and Michigan had a 65-52 win.
“I wasn’t fouling,” Livers said. “And I wasn’t wrapping my arm around him, just holding him.”
At Iowa, forwards Luka Garza, Tyler Cook and Ryan Kreiner combined for 41 points while Teske, Livers and Brazdeikis combined for 12 fouls.
On Saturday — when Fernando and Smith had 20 points and the combination of Teske, Brazdeikis and Livers had just six fouls — the Wolverines found the right balance.
“We’ve learned to play more physical,” Beilein said. “… Our losses have taught us we can play physical without fouling. At Iowa, we were in foul trouble immediately and that put us behind the eight-ball.”
And when Teske did get in foul trouble, Livers was there. Taking what he learned on a bad night against the Hawkeyes, he sent his own message to Maryland: You won’t be able to take advantage.
“When I get in there, I don’t try to outmuscle Bruno Fernando,” Livers said. “I try to move my feet around and just make him uncomfortable. I did that, it was like three times and he just threw it away because he got scared and threw it all the way out of bounds.”
Coming in, the Terrapins — a top-25 team who Beilein sees as a contender in March — looked like a bad matchup. But Beilein contended that their combination of bigs was nothing Michigan hadn’t seen before.
Livers and Teske proved him right.