Before the start of the 2017-18 season, the starting lineup for Michigan basketball was pretty simple to predict based on the players that returned.
Transfer guard Jaaron Simmons and sophomore Zavier Simpson splitting minutes at point guard, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and transfer guard Charles Matthews at the wings, senior forward Duncan Robinson at the four and junior forward Moritz Wagner playing the big man role for John Beilein.
What Beilein and everyone else didn’t know a lot about was where this team was going to get its depth.
There was plenty of raw talent on the bench, but without playing time in real college basketball games it was hard to tell how U-M would give some of their starters a breather with quality minutes.
First, it was Jon Teske. The 7-foot-1 forward has established himself as the clear big man to come off the bench and give Wagner a break.
Outside of Teske, it was hard to figure out who else could play key minutes with production. U-M couldn’t really find any consistency scoring in the early season from its wings off the bench.
Now after the fourth game of Big Ten Conference play, the Wolverines may have found a freshman bond that is growing into depth the Wolverines had to have.
Freshman guard Jordan Poole and freshman forward Isaiah Livers are starting to make progress week by week, and they both push each other to do so.
“(Livers) is my right hand man every day,” Poole said. “We both want to be successful and we are going through everything together as freshman. So seeing him go out there ball the way he is balling is a beautiful sight to see.”
Saturday, the two players put on a clinic for the Wolverines when they had to have it.
When the team was trailing by eight points nearing the eight minute mark of the first half, Livers and Poole put on a show, combining for a 12-2 run capped off by an alley-oop from Poole to Livers to give U-M the lead back and reignite a crowd that had nothing to cheer about since the pregame announcements.
More importantly? They did it while the starters (Wagner, Adbur-Rahkman, Matthews) were on the bench with foul trouble.
The pressure was put on them to create offense, and they did just that in a flashy style, feeding off each others energy.
“I saw him coming from the other side of the court and we kind of just made eye contact,” Poole said explaining the alley-oop. “I thought to myself ‘I’m going to throw it there you got to go get it big boy’. It was a big time play for us and it helped our chemistry.”
Both players ended in double figures, Livers with 12 points and Poole with 11, giving U-M six players to finish in double digit scoring, the most they’ve had in a single game this year.
For Livers, it was the first time in his U-M career he’s scored in double figures for back-to-back games.
“Each game I feel like I’m growing more and more confidence as I go,” Livers said. “A month ago, I was thinking way too much like should I or shouldn’t I shoot this shot. Now coach B(eilein) gives me the green light and trusts me to go to the basket whenever I want to.”
Livers said that Beilein has made him “his project” so far this season to see what he can get from him starting with putting in extra work.
“After practice it’s 15 more minutes with Isaiah over and over,” Livers said. “It’s actually a conditioning drill and he knows what he’s doing. He wants me to become strong in the paint and work on pivoting with my right foot and scoring off of it.
“I think these are the small steps I skipped when I was young, now I know all the little things are more important.”
Beilein said when Livers arrived like most freshman he’s coached, it took time for him to get acclimated with everything going on but now things are falling into place.
“If you saw some of (Livers) early practices you would question why we gave him a scholarship,” Beilein said. “Now I have no doubt we did the right thing. More rebounds, going right at people and getting to the foul line are the three things he’s working on right now, but I’ll take what we got today.”
With a large week now upon U-M, facing opponents in No. 5 Purdue and No. 4 Michigan State, Beilein said with having three games in six days it is encouraging to see the production from these two freshman.
“It is very good to see Isaiah doing what he’s doing, that Jordan Poole is doing things that he can learn from and now I can learn through all of their mistakes.”
Right now, these two players for the Wolverines have been getting increased minutes and, according to Livers, it’s only making his and Poole’s role better with the team.
“I love playing with Duncan (Robinson) out there because now I think coaches confidence is growing in me to play the four which leaves Duncan at his true position at the three and it’s good for both of us,” Livers said. “When Charles Matthews got in early foul trouble, we were there to pick it up. That’s how we can help this team win.”
They did just that on Saturday. While the veteran players combined for a 10-2 run to start the second half that regained U-M a lead they never let go, what Poole and Livers did in the first half while still adding second half points was essential to keeping them in the game.
With that being said, that “chemistry” Poole mentioned that he and Livers have going can only add to what Michigan has to offer when their numbers are called.