Isaiah Livers knew it would happen.
The Michigan men’s basketball team had gone 23 days between games and two weeks without so much as touching a basketball. Inevitably, when the Wolverines returned, the discourse would revolve around any alleged rust.
So, Livers took the initiative to try to avoid side effects of the prolonged break.
“That’s why I was outside, doing jump ropes, doing everything necessary to stay in shape,” the senior forward said. “A lot of other guys were too. We had a program, we all stayed true to it. … We didn’t want to have any built-in excuses.”
In Sunday’s emphatic 67-59 comeback victory against Wisconsin, those efforts paid dividends with Livers setting the tone.
Through the first 20 minutes, the team’s rust was evident. Michigan looked the part of a team that last played on Jan. 22, its first half performance littered with mental errors, poor shot selection and jellied legs.
Livers, though, did what he could to help keep the Wolverines afloat, scoring 13 of Michigan’s 27 first half points.
“I knew I was gonna come out and be aggressive cause I wanted to keep in that rhythm,” Livers said. “But other than that, I just wanted to lead my team.”
He did exactly that. By the time the final buzzer blared, Livers had contributed a game-high 20 points on 8-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 from beyond the arc. He added 7 rebounds and finished as a plus-11, the second-highest mark on the team.
At this point, 111 games and 91 wins into what is fast becoming an illustrious collegiate career, this level of play has become routine for Livers. He has notched 20 points in three consecutive games and scored double-figures in seven straight. Ho-hum.
“We keep it simple,” Wolverines’ coach Juwan Howard said of his team’s offensive strategy against the Badgers. “… We kept it simple. Simple plays.”
No one embodies that philosophy more so than Livers.
Livers’s points come within the flow of the game. Rarely does he force up an ill-advised shot or hoard the ball on an isolation. On a Michigan offense overflowing with talent, Livers has found the perfect balance.
“I took advantage of that tonight,” Livers said. “I was just doing with what the system tells me to do. Coach Howard puts me in a spot to score, I go score the ball. If not, then I try to create for someone else, create so they can get a shot, get a drive.”
Livers has made drastic strides to his offensive game since the COVID-19 pandemic cut his junior campaign short, increasing his production while also sharpening his efficiency.
Last year, Livers averaged 12.9 points per game on 9.9 shot attempts. This year, he’s scoring 15.1 points per game on 10.5 attempts. He is shooting 49% from the field and a lethal 46% from deep, compared to 45% and 40% last season.
Livers’s refined repertoire also features a blend of jump shots and points in the paint. When the Wolverines stared down a 12-point halftime deficit on Sunday, Livers recognized the need to emphasize the latter.
“They were the most aggressive team in the first half,” Livers said. “We had to come back out in the second half, we had to drive them. I thought we settled for a lot of shots. We got to the basket more in the second half and that kind of changed momentum.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that Livers notched the first basket of the second half on an off-ball cut, slicing down the lane and receiving a pass in stride for an easy lay-in.
Livers treated the layoff as a quasi-All Star Break, using the time to look in the mirror. He poured over reams of film, re-evaluating his performance and searching for ways to improve alongside assistant coach Saddi Washington.
“Just kind of tips and advice, opinions so when I get back, I can just add it to my game,” Livers said on Friday. “I want to help my team as best as possible, especially in the future.”
One area for potential improvement that Livers and Washington found was on the glass. Though Livers is averaging a career-high 6.1 rebounds per game — up from 4.0 last year — he aspired for more.
Against Wisconsin, the 6-foot-7 Livers grabbed seven rebounds, besting a stout Badgers frontcourt of 6-foot-11 Nate Reuvers and 6-foot-10 Micah Potter. The duo combine for nearly 10 rebounds a game, yet neither managed to grab a rebound on Sunday.
After the game, much was made in the press conference about the team’s turnaround and freshman center Hunter Dickinson’s latest 15-rebound, 5-block spectacle. There was little mention of Livers. But perhaps that’s the point. For Livers, at this stage in his career, this is just another day at the office.
And as the Wolverines continue to assert themselves as bona fide championship contenders, they can rely on Livers to lead the way.