On Sunday afternoon (Jan. 18), Michigan announced that Caris LeVert will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season after suffering an injury to his left foot in the waning moments of Michigan's 56-54 home win against Northwestern on Saturday evening (Jan. 17). LeVert attempted to rebound Bryant McIntosh's potential game-tying layup in the final seconds, and, as he descended after his jump, he came down awkwardly on his left foot, as you can see here in this Vine courtesy of UM Hoops' Alejandro Zuniga. Though the diagnosis of LeVert's injury was not revealed, Michigan did disclose that LeVert will have surgery on his left foot this week and follow the surgery with a 12-week recovery and rehabilitation period.
What does this mean for Michigan's season?
Michigan's season is over.
Before LeVert suffered his injury, Michigan was already struggling. During the non-conference portion of the season, Michigan posted a miserable 7-5 record that included crushing home losses to NJIT (No. 207 on KenPom) and Eastern Michigan (No. 125 on KenPom). The only way Michigan could salvage its season was to make a second-half run during the conference season, capture 10 to 11 Big Ten wins, and hope that'd be enough to earn an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. However, despite Michigan's 4-2 conference record, little about their play of late has been encouraging. Michigan has been very inconsistent, especially offensively as the Wolverines are prone to significant field-goal droughts, and have benefited from one of the weakest Big Ten-only strengths of schedule in the early going. The four Big Ten teams that Michigan has beaten (Illinois, Penn State, Minnesota, Northwestern) are a combined 4-18 in the Big Ten, and three of those games were played in Ann Arbor. The road will get much rockier for Michigan.
And this was happening with LeVert, who, despite an underwhelming season relative to preseason expectations, clearly had been Michigan's best player, on the court. LeVert led Michigan in points (14.9), rebounds (4.9), assists (3.7), steals (1.8), and minutes (35.8) per game. But, most importantly, with a sprained toe hindering Derrick Walton's athleticism and Zak Irvin remaining just a shooter (who can't shoot), the burden to create offense out of thin air had been placed solely on LeVert. Though he didn't get all the way to the rim consistently, LeVert still took defenders off the bounce in isolation and penetrated into the paint, where he either pulled up for six- to eight-foot jumpers or kicked it out to open shooters on the perimeter. Look at his stats from the Northwestern game: 18 points (7-19 FG), seven assists, and six rebounds, accounting for 37 of Michigan's 56 points (66.1 pct.). He wasn't efficient, but he was a playmaker keeping Michigan's offense afloat.
Without LeVert, Michigan's offense will now sink to unthinkable depths (for a John Beilein offense) at a time when the Wolverines could least afford it. Who will replace LeVert's playmaking ability on offense? Walton? Doubtful. Because of his sprained toe, Walton has turned into a jump-shooter. In his last three games, Walton has attempted 25 shots, only four of which were within five feet of the rim. And, when he does get into the paint, his injury has limited his ability to finish (1-of-9 within five feet in Big Ten play).
So what about Irvin? Not only is he dealing with an upper respiratory infection at the moment, along with Spike Albrecht and Ricky Doyle, he is purely a shooter. In six Big Ten games, Irvin has attempted 46 field goals further than 15 feet away from the rim and only 14 shots within five feet, of which he's made only three. And his assist rate is a measly 5.9 percent, which is the same range as Doyle's and Max Bielfeldt's assist rates.
If neither Walton nor Irvin can be expected to fill in the void left by LeVert, then Michigan is asking either Albrecht or one of three freshmen wings (Kameron Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) to do so. Albrecht has moments when he can dribble into the paint and create plays for others, but it's very infrequent. Chatman has arguably been the least valuable player in the Big Ten. And Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman were unheralded recruits picked up late in the cycle after Michigan had an exodus of talent leave for the NBA that haven't been asked to be anything more than a seldom-used reserve. No one will be able to replace LeVert.
So, without a leader or playmaker on offense, Michigan will play 12 regular-season games in which KenPom projects Michigan will be the underdog in 10 of them:
And KenPom's projection is under the assumption that LeVert will be playing.
So you can kiss any chance at the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT goodbye.
What does this mean for Caris LeVert's future?
This is an awful injury for Caris LeVert, and it'll leave him with a very tough decision.
This isn't just any random injury for LeVert. It's to the same left foot he needed surgery on to repair a stress fracture last May that kept him out of summer workouts before Michigan traveled to Europe. Is this another stress fracture for LeVert? How much would a second fracture to this foot hinder his ability? Is LeVert officially injury-prone?
These are all questions that NBA executives and scouts will be asking themselves and LeVert will be thinking about before he decides whether he will declare early for the 2015 NBA Draft or return to Michigan for his senior season. Two injuries to the same left foot very likely will raise a red flag in the minds of NBA executives, which may lower LeVert's draft stock lower than what his underwhelming performance this season already has. This may be enough to convince LeVert to remain at Michigan for one more year and prove that his injury and performance this season were just anomalies.
On the other hand, this injury may be enough to convince LeVert that he shouldn't risk another season not being paid and should head to the NBA now, especially if his draft stock remains mid-first round pick as Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress believes:
Don't think Caris LeVert has had a great season, but no question in my mind he's a 1st round pick. Super versatile guard w/plenty of upside.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) January 18, 2015
This is a strong draft for wings and bigs, but incredibly poor at the guard spots. LeVert is one of the best Gs in draft anyway you slice it— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) January 18, 2015
So was yesterday the last time we will see LeVert donning a Michigan uniform? It may have been. If it was, it truly has been a pleasure watching the formerly unknown string bean from Pickerington, Ohio blossom into an All-Big Ten caliber player that appeared in a national title game and was the second banana on a Big Ten championship team.
Whatever LeVert's decision is, we at Maize n Brew wish him a full and speedy recovery.