Isaiah Livers’ career flashed before his eyes on Friday night.
The senior forward has put together an all-time great four-year stretch in Ann Arbor, highlighted by the Wolverines’ 2018 Big Ten Tournament title and Final Four appearance. This season, Livers’ 13.1 points and six rebounds per game were a big reason why Michigan secured an outright conference title during the regular season.
But it goes deeper than that. The senior captain is the heart and soul of this season’s team, and he’s one of the most experienced players on second-year coach Juwan Howard’s roster. Livers has won 118 career games and scored just shy of 1,000 points.
So when he stepped onto the court at Lucas Oil Stadium wearing a boot for Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal game against Ohio State, the Wolverines looked a bit lost without him. Top-seeded Michigan ultimately fell, 68-67, as the Buckeyes fended off a last-minute comeback attempt.
“Isaiah’s a great talent, one of the best players in the country, and so missing him was obviously going to be a big hill that we had to climb over,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said.
As Livers watched from the bench, the Wolverines put up their worst offensive first half of the season. Michigan scored just 27 points and shot a dismal 29.6 percent from the field, including a 22 percent clip from beyond the arc. Livers’ absence forced junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. into the starting lineup, causing the Wolverines to operate with two post players. That lineup combination threw off Michigan’s normal four-out spacing, making it harder to move the ball and get clean looks.
But with Livers sidelined indefinitely due to a foot stress injury, it’s an adjustment the Wolverines will have to make. There’s no clear answer yet on how Michigan will replace Livers’ production, and Saturday’s loss only heightened any doubts. Asked to shoulder a heavier offensive load, Franz Wagner, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown shot a combined 4-for-27 from the field.
The Wolverines struggled to find a spark until the last few minutes of the second half — only after they spent the majority of the game forcing up contested shots. Their lack of an answer to Livers’ absence even left Howard joking about using his last year of NCAA eligibility during the postgame press conference.
“We all collectively (are) going to do our part,” Howard said. “Me as a coach, every player, all hands on deck. You can’t just name one guy who’s gonna step in and fill the shoes.”
Whether or not Livers has played his final game in a Michigan uniform remains to be seen. He had been working through foot problems since the Wolverines’ game at Maryland on New Year’s Eve, but he didn’t realize it was a stress injury until undergoing an MRI on Friday night. Livers told reporters that he hasn’t yet discussed a return date with Wolverines’ trainer Alex Wong, but he’s hopeful he’ll be able to rejoin the team if they make a deep tournament run.
Michigan will have to find a way to adjust moving forward without Livers. That starts with the message on the back of their March shooting shirts: “For competitors only.” It’s something Howard has preached all season to this point.
With Livers now out, the Wolverines will figure out exactly what sort of competitors they are.
“I think I’d be lying if not every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will win the national championship,” Dickinson said. “I think the confidence starts with coach Howard. He instills that confidence in us every day and I think it really rubs off on the team.”