Isaiah Livers walked out on the floor. Crisler Center was dark, except for a smattering of phone lights from the audience.
Then came the PA announcement. “At forward, a 6-7 sophomore from Kalamazoo, Michigan, number four, Isaiah Livers!”
For the first time all season, Livers stood on the court, opposite Nebraska’s Tanner Borchardt, as “Seven Nation Army” streamed through the speakers. The ref held the ball and tipped it up in the air. The game was underway and Livers was on the court.
To him, the pregame festivities the only part that was different about making his first start of the season with redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews sidelined with a right ankle injury. Everything on the court felt the same.
“It’s just the next man up mentality,” Livers said. “I kinda feel like I’m starting already, being the sixth man and all, so it wasn’t that much of a change.”
Beyond that, Livers started much of last season — including the national championship game — as a freshman before freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis supplanted him before this season. Starting was nothing new, but at the same time, it was an opportunity to prove his worth on the court with the absence of Matthews, one of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s most important players.
Less than two minutes into the game, Livers had the ball on the left wing and, with just a few seconds remaining on the shot clock, rattled in a 3-pointer to give the Wolverines an early five-point lead that would only increase in their 82-53 win.
But while Livers’ contributions in previous games often consisted primarily of stalwart defense on opposing big men and a smattering of spot-up threes, on Thursday, Livers was thrust into a new position — guarding the ‘3’, Nebraska wing James Palmer, Jr., the Big Ten’s fourth-leading scorer, the assignment Matthews would have normally drawn.
“My concern would be, you will guard a ‘3’ the whole time,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He’s never really guarded a ‘3’ except when he’s in for Charles.”
As it turned out, Beilein didn’t need to worry. Livers forced Palmer into tough shots and held him to seven points on 3-of-15 shooting, a performance so poor that Nebraska coach Tim Miles left him on the bench to start the second half.
And from when Matthews walked in wearing a walking boot Wednesday at practice — making it clear that Livers would be filling in — Livers’ hunger was apparent.
“I sensed excitement in him, really,” Beilein said Friday. “Just watching him get ready. He’s been a 4-man, he’s always wanted to play the 3-man and trying to work him into that position and so he’s just, ‘Well now, I’m the only guy they’ve got. This is gonna be good. … I’m ready.’ ”
Putting a player used to playing the ‘4’ at the ‘3’ had other advantages, too. Livers’ size and athleticism put him in a good position to crash the boards. With the game long decided late in the second half, junior center Jon Teske and Livers fought for the same rebound. The ball eventually landed in Livers’ hands.
Both players were close to a double-double, only needing a few more rebounds to finish the job.
“I told him, I saw that I had nine rebounds, able to get these last two rebounds,” Teske said. “And he’s like, ‘Well, let me get the two!’ I didn’t realize he was close to it, too.”
In the end, Teske and Livers each ended up with a double-double. When Livers brought down his 10th board, the crowd cheered, and it was only after looking up that he realized his accomplishment. He finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, the first double-double of his career.
Look at the Wolverines’ performance and you’d hardly be able to tell that they were a man down, let alone missing one of their most important players.
Michigan has Livers to thank.