Had last year’s Michigan men’s basketball team done what it was supposed to do and beaten Ohio in its first NCAA Tournament game last season, former Bobcat coach John Groce would likely still call Athens, Ohio his home.
Instead, Ohio upset Michigan on its way to the Sweet 16. A few weeks later, Groce cashed in on his team’s tournament run and accepted the gig at Illinois. With Groce out at Ohio, former Bobcat signee Caris LeVert was given a release from his letter of intent and, after a visit to Ann Arbor, signed with the Wolverines.
Sunday, the freshman guard’s six points were key in Michigan’s 71-58 win over Illinois and LeVert’s would-be coach.
The Pickerington, Ohio native said it was “kind of strange” playing with Groce on the opposing sideline, adding that he was full of “mixed feelings.” But the guard didn’t let that deter his play, as he and freshman point guard Spike Albrecht contributed a handful of game-changing plays.
LeVert played 16 minutes, while Albrecht played just seven. Neither of the freshmen’s stat lines look exceptional in Sunday’s box score, but the pair made their presence felt on a day when several regular contributors struggled.
“We saw how we started out a little slow and me and Spike kind of talked to each other, saying ‘We’ve got to bring more energy coming into the game,’ so we just tried to do that,” LeVert said. “Most of it was actually on the defensive end.”
A few possessions after drawing a charge, Albrecht knocked down a 3-pointer to pull a sluggish first-half Wolverine squad to within five points of the Figthing Illini with eight minutes left in the opening stanza.
Two minutes later, the point guard deflected an entry pass from the perimeter that redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan stole. Morgan quickly made an outlet pass to Albrecht, who quarterbacked a fast break that finished with a monstrous slam by freshman forward Glenn Robinson III to tie the game.
While almost all of his playing time came alongside Burke (Burke played 39 minutes), Albrecht looked significantly more comfortable than he has in previous Big Ten outings — perhaps a product of Michigan’s recent week off.
“As we retooled this week, we talked about that,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “When we saw Spike in October, we saw a young man that he really saw the game at a speed that we like him to see at.
“We know that Trey and Tim are terrific players. There’s some other guys out there that need to step up for us to continue in the direction where we want to go. Spike got a lot of reps in practice with the first team (in the past week).”
LeVert, who sprained his ankle in last week’s win over Penn State, also received a share of first-team reps after getting healthy.
With under seven minutes left in the game and Michigan leading by six, LeVert deflected a pass that led to a 3-pointer from Burke. After a Wolverine stop on the other end, LeVert hit a 3-pointer of his own to put Michigan up 12 and essentially seal the game.
Burke, who assisted on the basket, was particularly animated that LeVert knocked down the shot after he got on his younger teammate for passing up a previous wide-open opportunity. It was one LeVert’s two 3-pointers on the afternoon.
“I just told him, ‘Just shoot the wide-open shot,’ ” Burke said. “I was so happy just because I knew Caris was going to hit it. I would’ve been mad if he had pump-faked and tried to go into the defense again.
“Once he just stopped thinking about the game and just playing off of natural instinct, he hit some big shots for us, he made some very big defensive stops for us, and he was a buzz off the bench.”
The two players, who both grew up around Columbus, have formed a special bond that often includes one-on-one matchups outside of practice time.
“They have a lot of synergy together,” Beilein said. “When they see each other, they connect. There’s not a person on the team that doesn’t love Caris, so when you have an assist to him, it even makes you feel better.”
Despite combining for just nine points in limited playing time, the two freshmen displayed maturity in a must-win game for Michigan. And if the Wolverines hope to make a deep run through March and even into early April, they’ll need contributions from their unsung newcomers.
“(Spike) and Caris both made lots of extra shots this week and it paid off,” Beilein said. “We made that commitment to the young team early. We have some really good players between (senior guard) Matt (Vogrich) and (senior forward) Blake (McLimans), (senior guard) Eso (Akunne), that are sitting out right now so that these guys can play. I was happy that we could get that done today.”