Nine days and two games isn’t much time for Juwan Howard to have it figured out, but it’ll have to be enough.
The last time Isaiah Livers got hurt, the Michigan men’s basketball team failed that test. It’s easy to forget now — that 2019-20 team wasn’t as good as this team, that season’s end overshadows everything in a way this season’s won’t. Howard, of course, remembers.
“We had some experience in this last season when Isaiah went down,” he said on a Zoom call Sunday. “I can’t recall how many games he missed last season. I just feel bad for Isaiah.”
To refresh his memory, Livers missed 10 games. Michigan went 5-5 in those games, not to mention a loss against Illinois after Livers left the game with an injury. The Wolverines went from a pretty good team to one that was losing four straight home games.
But that was a team whose ceiling was nowhere near this one’s. This team can win a national title. It might even be able to win a national title without Livers, its best 3-point shooter and second-leading scorer. That, at least, is still the goal.
“I think I’d be lying,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said at the Big Ten Tournament, “if not every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will still win the national championship.”
That was right after a one-point loss to Ohio State knocked Michigan out of the Big Ten Tournament, when the Wolverines were still reeling, having learned the night before that Livers had suffered a stress fracture in his foot. The only game Michigan has played since then, a first-round matchup against 16-seed Texas Southern, amounted to a scrimmage with the window dressings of March.
So, what do we know about Michigan without Isaiah Livers? Probably less than we think we do.
“Every guy has to step up, it’s not just one particular guy,” Howard said. “And Brandon (Johns Jr.) is the guy who’s filled in as far as the starting lineup, but not putting any added pressure on Brandon. It’s each and every guy who understands that when a player goes down, we support him, but we gotta of course trust that the other guys (are) gonna be out there on the floor, they’re gonna go out there and compete from start to finish.”
Johns, at least in the last two games, has held his own. Michigan even got some encouraging signs from freshmen guard Zeb Jackson and forward Terrance Williams against Texas Southern; though, that was the second-worst team the Wolverines have played all year by KenPom rank.
All of that is, in a lot of ways, ancillary. Good for the Wolverines if they can survive a few minutes with their deep bench on the court. However, they won’t beat LSU on Monday without getting more from the best five players in their rotation.
That means Hunter Dickinson, who fouled out against Texas Southern after committing six turnovers. And Franz Wagner, who fouled out against Ohio State and hasn’t reached double-digit scoring in the last two games. And Chaundee Brown Jr., who has a total of three points since Michigan announced that Livers has a stress fracture in his foot.
Point guard Mike Smith looked ready to go against Texas Southern, with 18 points in his first ever NCAA Tournament game. So did senior Eli Brooks, hitting early 3-pointers to set the tone. The rest need to follow.
They didn’t when Brooks was hurt, earlier in the year. That’s when Michigan played its worst game of the year, a blowout loss on the road at Minnesota. When Brooks went out with an ankle injury at Michigan State in the season’s last regular season game, the Wolverines couldn’t handle that either, losing 70-64. It might be easier to play without Livers than without Brooks — Michigan has wing depth, but not guard depth. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
With Livers, Michigan is a team whose depth is its strength. Without him, it’s a team that will go as far as its best five can take it. The Wolverines can’t have foul trouble, a cold Chaundee Brown, a turnover-laden performance from their best player.
They can survive without Livers, sure, and certainly they can do so against an LSU team that ranks 121st in adjusted defensive efficiency — third-worst of any remaining NCAA Tournament team.
But the margin for error is low. Really low. Give the Tigers a window and they’ll run right through it.
“LSU, they’re very skilled, yes they do have a backcourt of two amazing players in (Javonte) Smart as well as (Cam) Thomas,” Howard said. “We’re gonna do our best to try to contain them.”
Those guys — Smart, Thomas and Trendon Watford — are some of the best scorers in the country. It’ll be on Michigan’s guys to meet the moment, and it’ll be on Howard to figure out how.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.
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