Last March, the Michigan basketball team was upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Ohio, ending its season disappointingly early and killing some of the good vibes that came from a season that garnered the program’s first Big Ten title since 1986.
But that game immensely boosted the stock of Ohio coach John Groce in the eyes of schools higher up in the college basketball rungs.
Twelve days after ending the Wolverines’ season, Groce was named head coach at Illinois. This freed up the commitments for all of his incoming recruits, including a 6-foot-5 guard named Caris LeVert who shot up in recruiting rankings.
Shortly after, LeVert got a recruiting redo and became the last member of Michigan’s 2012 recruiting class, joining highly touted recruits Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary.
It’s hard to play the what-if game, but if Michigan had beaten Ohio last March, LeVert probably wouldn’t be in Ann Arbor this fall.
And why should you care? This was a 160-pound beanpole, a guy Michigan coach John Beilein has called a “bag of bones” and someone who is probably going to redshirt this season.
But this is also a guy that was mentioned, without fail, by every veteran Wolverine during preseason media days as someone who had surprised them, even blew them away in practice.
“Caris, man, he’s a sleeper,” sophomore guard Trey Burke said with a smile during Big Ten media day in October. “His potential and his ceiling to grow are unlimited because he already has the skill set that a lot of players at this level don’t have. He’s 6-foot-5 but can handle the ball like a real point guard.”
Beilein had scouted the freshman from Pickerington, Ohio and liked his versatility and upside, but he was a bit of an unknown to the rest of the Wolverines.
It took less than a full practice session to see that LeVert was going to be more than just a late addition to the recruiting class. Players were amazed that somebody that tall and skinny could have such impressive body control and ball-handling skills.
They were also impressed by his work ethic. LeVert arrived in Ann Arbor weighing close to 160 pounds, but according to an estimate by junior Tim Hardaway Jr., has already added 20 pounds of muscle after a couple months at Michigan.
“He’s in the gym more than a lot of people,” redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan said in Chicago. “He just wants to get better. His problem was his body, and he’s already put on a lot of weight and is going to continue to do that. He just has a lot of game, and he’s willing to take what anyone has to tell him and willing to just learn.
“Whether it be this year or in the near future, he definitely can be a really, really good player.”
Still, this praise all came before the exhibition games started, where LeVert looked unspectacular. It was clear he hadn’t adjusted to the speed of the college game yet, scoring just three points on 1-of-6 shooting in a combined 22 minutes of play in Michigan’s two exhibition games.
And part of the problem with switching from a school like Ohio to a school like Michigan is the talent and depth of each team, especially in a year when Michigan is ranked No. 5 in the country.
Beilein said before the first regular-season game against Slippery Rock that he didn’t want to use up LeVert’s redshirt eligibility until he absolutely had to, meaning that even in a blowout, LeVert will remain comfortable on the end of the bench.
The coaching staff sees his immediate potential, but they also see his potential to grow.
“I want to make a really educated decision after some time and get some quality time to work with him,” Beilein said. “Most times you redshirt someone, it’s because you think he can be a special player with more time, more weight and all of those things.”
Maybe some of the veterans appreciate LeVert because they can relate to him. Burke, Hardaway and Morgan didn’t get the high school accolades that McGary and Robinson did. They were lightly recruited, just like LeVert.
Maybe when they see LeVert and all the work he has been putting in, they see themselves a couple of years ago, the under-the-radar freshmen that ended up becoming the backbone of this current Michigan squad.
Or maybe they realize that a few years ago, LeVert would have seen playing time as a freshman, just like they did.
“That’s how we started this team, was with a bunch of guys who were underestimated,” Morgan said. “Those are always the guys who are willing to work. That’s not a knock against highly-recruited players, because we have some highly-recruited players and they work hard too, so that’s not at all the case.
“But there’s just something about guys that are under the radar but have that drive to be good.”