Senior guard David Merritt was standing in the Crisler Arena tunnel doing an interview the day before last month’s UCLA game when junior Jevohn Shepherd walked by.
“Guy’s getting big time,” Shepherd said. “Oh my gosh.”
Is it shocking Merritt was getting attention? He was leading the Wolverines in points and assists at the time – in practice.
The senior guard walked onto the team last year but played just 39 minutes for the Wolverines before this season’s Central Michigan game. In that game, Michigan coach John Beilein called on Merritt to spark the lifeless Wolverines in the first half. The last time Merritt played before halftime was at Duke, when Michigan already trailed by 18.
“I was in the huddle and he was like ‘David, David,’ ” Merritt said. “I was listening to what he was saying, but I wasn’t expecting him to call me. It took me a couple of seconds to realize he was calling my name.”
Merritt played 11 minutes against the Chippewas, including during several crucial moments down the stretch as Michigan tried unsuccessfully to avoid an upset.
“David’s one of my favorites because David really just came in here with no expectation,” said Beilein, whose Wolverines play at Illinois (0-4 Big Ten, 8-9 overall) tonight. “Every day, he impresses so much on the scout team that gradually we just said ‘You know what? If things aren’t going well, this kid understands how to play.’ “
Last month, Jerret Smith was kicked off the team for academic issues and K’Len Morris left the team for personal reasons. With those guards gone, Merritt knew his playing time was likely to increase. He played 27 minutes the next three games, but took just two shots as he adjusted to his new role.
After graduating high school, the West Bloomfield native chose an academic scholarship at Michigan over a basketball scholarship at Division II Hillsdale. He tried out for the Wolverines his freshman and sophomore years but didn’t make the team. Thoughts of transferring to Hillsdale crossed his mind.
When Merritt finally made the team his junior year, he knew his job – making the rotation players better. He excelled in practice, but his playing time was minimal.
“It used to frustrate me some,” Merritt said.
But he learned to accept it.
“If I prove myself over and over again, eventually I’ll get my shot,” Merritt said.
Merritt had his best game at Northwestern Saturday, setting career highs in minutes (23), points (six), rebounds (four) and assists (two).
After the win over the Wildcats, Merritt led the Wolverines in “The Victors.” Beilein said he picked Merritt because he’s a local guy who knows all the words – the Wolverines (1-3, 5-11) haven’t had many chances to practice this year. But Merritt likes to sing R&B in the shower and is known among most of the team as one of its best vocalists.
“He’s not,” sophomore Ekpe Udoh said. “Um, no comment.”
Still, Udoh would probably like to hear Merritt sing again tonight.
Note: Beilein said senior Ron Coleman’s status is day-to-day with a tweaked ankle.
Michigan at Illinois
Matchup: Michigan 5-11; Illinois 8-9
When: 9 P.M.
Where: Assembly Hall