The Rivalry Edition

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Turning points are often arbitrary. They are judged retroactively, frequently in an attempt to ascribe meaning to results rather than default to the randomness of sports.

But if the Michigan men’s basketball team finds itself and rounds into form here, we will look back on Saturday’s 77-68 win over Michigan State as a catalyst. Not just because the Wolverines beat the Spartans for the first time in nearly two years, nor simply because Michigan stopped a two-game skid and added an all-important conference win over a KenPom top-15 team.

But because, four months into the season, we still don’t know how good this team can be with Isaiah Livers on the floor. Livers returned Saturday from an injury; he’d sat eight of the previous nine games, of which Michigan lost six. With Livers in the lineup, Michigan started the year by winning 11 of 14 games, including a win over No. 2 Gonzaga in the Bahamas.

In 31 minutes against the Spartans, Livers scored 14 points and made 2-of-5 attempts from 3-point range. He did not play in the teams’ first matchup on Jan. 5, an 87-69 loss in East Lansing.

“We already said it after — (with) me or not, this game was going to be a tone-setter,” Livers said. “… We didn’t get rattled at all. We were just excited to come out with the ‘W’. It was meaningful for us.”

Livers did not play in the Jan. 5 loss, but Saturday helped direct a defensive game plan that was executed to perfection. His defensive prowess aside, Livers’ steadying presence alone adds a layer of comfort this team needs right now.

“When you’ve got coaches, players, especially, that’s been around for a little bit, like me, (Zavier Simpson) and (Jon Teske), we’ve been here,” Livers said. “We can adjust.”

Livers, to his credit, has been just about everywhere and done just about everything in his three years at Michigan. He took a starting gig from a senior midseason and then started in the Final Four during his freshman campaign; he was subsequently upended by a freshman the year after, and so he moved back to the bench without a fuss. He’s won conference titles; he’s lost them, too. He’s battled confidence issues and mental lows; he’s endured a coaching change; he’s re-shaped his body and his game; he’s evolved into one of college basketball’s best shooters. And you just get the sense the story of his collegiate career is still to be written.

Michigan lost plenty you can see when Livers was out. Taking a 50-percent 3-point shooter out of the lineup causes spatial issues that are aesthetically obvious. That loss is compounded by the dearth of wing depth on the roster. For all of Brandon Johns Jr.’s merits, there is no like-for-like replacement for Livers on the roster — no one else who can both defend three different positions and stretch defenses on the other end. The Wolverines shot 29.6 percent from 3-point range in the eight games Livers was sidelined. If extrapolated out to the full season, that figure would rank them dead last in the conference.

There’s also plenty we can’t see when Livers is out. Here’s a subtle example. This is how Isaiah Livers answered a question about transition defense:

“The best thing I can do is direct traffic. We have young guys that, as they sprint back, they don’t know what to do. I’m already back, talking, just pointing and directing them. ‘Go to that area, I’ll go to this area, go up there and guard the ball.’ 

“Just little things like that can help. I think we need more of that.”

“Little things” are precisely what’s plagued this team most all year.

“We missed him a lot and we missed having another guy like Zay,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said, “who can not only make shots but also a guy that has a higher basketball IQ, that knows how to make plays.”

Veterans matter in college basketball, as Tom Izzo reminded us when he so eloquently groveled about how his freshman “just aren’t ready.” There’s a reason why the successful teams in the one-and-done eras are rarely littered with one-and-done players. For all the cringeworthy abuse of this phrase, Isaiah Livers is a winning player.

But is it that simple? Are the flaws that plagued and nearly killed Michigan in his absence simply in the rearview?

Saturday certainly was a step in the right direction. Presuming the Wolverines take care of their next two games (at Northwestern and home to Indiana), they’ll have clawed back to .500 in conference play. They’ll head to Rutgers — a team they’ve already beaten on a neutral court — brimming with confidence. For the first time all year, they’ll likely have everyone healthy and happy. 

If that comes to fruition, they’ll be a team no one wants to play in March. And they’ll certainly point to Saturday’s win over Michigan State as a paradigm shift.

It could just as easily prove a momentary boon, Livers’ return plugging only one hole on a sinking ship. Saturday’s result could just as easily say more about where Michigan State is than anything else.

Is Saturday a sign of things to come or a mirage? Will Livers’ return prove to be a turning point or merely a momentary respite? 

We’ll have to wait two more months to pen that narrative.

Marcovitch can be reached on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch or via email at maxmarco@umich.edu.

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