Caris LeVert is clutching his left foot in agony, a buzzer sounds, and the sellout crowd at Crisler Center is standing and cheering. It’s Jan. 17, 2015, and everybody in the building is celebrating Michigan’s 56-54 win over Northwestern. Everybody, that is, except for LeVert.
The prognosis for the Wolverines’ leader in every meaningful statistical category and a near-certain first-round NBA draft pick is initially unclear. But with the next day’s news that LeVert’s foot injury will force him to miss the rest of the season, Team 99’s hopes of contending in a competitive Big Ten are dealt a crushing blow.
Lost in translation is the obvious advantage: Team 100 is getting a head start.
Fast-forward two weeks, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is putting on a show in East Lansing. The then-freshman guard’s 18-point performance Feb. 1 brings a Michigan team without its starting backcourt — yes, Derrick Walton Jr. is also out of commission with a toe injury — to overtime against a bigger, more experienced Michigan State unit.
Abdur-Rahkman was not supposed to play meaningful minutes in 2014-15. But by sheer process of elimination, Michigan coach John Beilein was forced to throw the true freshman into the fire, alongside classmate and backcourt accomplice Aubrey Dawkins.
Dawkins, in his own right, also had no business putting up 16 points against Iowa four days later, or 31 against Rutgers and 18 against Illinois in consecutive games as the injury-riddled season mercifully came to a close.
But with LeVert gone, the pair had no choice. Michigan needed scorers, it needed ball-handlers, and it was out of options. Enter Dawkins. Enter Abdur-Rahkman. Sometimes, they looked lost. Sometimes, Abdur-Rahkman rained down 3s. Sometimes, Dawkins made SportsCenter after posterizing players across the Midwest.
Dawkins’ quiet confidence is apparent, and he doesn’t twist reality. He’s said he never expected to enter his sophomore year with this much experience, with this much confidence, with this much responsibility. Nobody did.
All of a sudden, between Dawkins, LeVert, Walton, Abdur-Rahkman, senior Spike Albrecht and sharpshooting transfer Duncan Robinson, Beilein has more options than he knows what to do with in the backcourt. In a college basketball landscape dominated by ballhandlers, and in Beilein’s guard-heavy offense, expect a Wolverine onslaught. They’ll run, they’ll shoot and, perhaps most importantly, they’ll be fresh. With five guards with Big Ten starting experience and a potential weapon in Robinson, how could they not be?
They’ll play with poise and pace, too, in a way they never could have last season. The game moved too fast for the freshmen in 2014-15, Beilein has said. But ask Dawkins to list his single biggest offseason improvement, and he’ll tell you it’s his basketball IQ. Yet another break for Dawkins and the Wolverines: It’s harder to get smarter on the court if you’re never on the court.
LeVert’s absence in the second half of 2014-15 doesn’t just shape Michigan’s newfound depth — it also means LeVert is spending this season in Ann Arbor. He wasn’t supposed to be here for his senior season. He was supposed to be playing in the NBA alongside three of his recruiting class cohorts: Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. Instead, he’s back, he’s among the early favorites for Big Ten Player of the Year, and he’s ready to bring the program back to the state in which he found it.
If 2014-15 was the year that never was, 2015-16 is the year that wasn’t supposed to be.
After a spate of injuries last season, after unfathomable losses to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan, the Wolverines have reached the point that last year was supposed to represent. It’s time to show once and for all they’re a program that reloads and doesn’t rebuild.
After 2013’s Final Four run and 2014’s trip to the Elite Eight, Michigan had a chance to prove as a program that playing in late March is the expectation, not the exception. It became clear early on, even before LeVert’s injury, that it wasn’t meant to be, and the focus shifted.
Dawkins has called his unexpected opportunity for growth a “blessing in disguise.” Beilein has often discussed the team’s “growth mindset” in 2014-15. Redshirt freshman forward D.J. Wilson, out of commission for nearly the entire season, took advantage of the opportunity to hit the weight room. Sophomore forward Ricky Doyle joined him. Albrecht began the year as a backup point guard. By the season’s end, he was the team’s clear leader, its voice, its rallying point.
The Wolverines return 92.5 percent of their scoring this season, the highest among teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The pieces, improbably, are there.
This season isn’t what it was supposed to be — the year Michigan recovered from losing LeVert, the year its second-year guards grew into their own, the year the next segment of the John Beilein era took shape. All told, it’s tough to complain. The Wolverines are bigger and better, and reinforcements are coming.
This season is Michigan’s mulligan, but the green is shorter, and the Wolverines are working with a better set of clubs. Don’t expect them to miss twice.