It wasn’t long ago when Michigan wasn’t expected to go far in the NCAA Tournament after Isaiah Livers suffered a stress injury to his foot that sidelined him indefinitely.
With Livers out after the injury vs. Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan pushed forward.
The team knew how valuable Livers was — how good of a leader he was, his ability to shoot from three, his size. Michigan knew what they’d be missing and that replacing his production wouldn’t be easy. But they fought through it, others stepped up.
“Without Isaiah we have a weapon that is not out there,” Franz Wagner said after the injury. “But I think we’ve seen all season that we have multiple guys that can score a lot of points, that are great shooters from the outside and are a threat defensively.”
Michigan would go on to lose the game after Livers’ injury, a 68-67 gut-wrenching defeat to Ohio State that knocked them out of the Big Ten Tournament. In that defeat it was evident Michigan would keep battling, they weren’t mentally defeated.
“I keep seeing all this stuff about without Isaiah Livers and all this crap, but this team is very high-level, very elite,” Livers said over two weeks ago. “They have habits. They practice hard. They’re built for it. I’m going to be there 110% supporting and being the best coach I can on the sideline. We’ve got a lot of weapons.”
Others stepped up. Sixth-man Chaundee Brown was leaned upon heavily in Michigan second-round against LSU. Brown scored 21 points, hit three 3 pointers, and played lights out defense down the stretch. Michigan beat LSU 86-78.
“Obviously if you miss any type of starter guy…it does put a little bit more on the starters or the other people that are playing,” Livers said. “My message to them when we start this NCAA tourney is play Michigan basketball. Don’t put no pressure or any labels on you. Don’t try to compare or live up to anybody else. Just be yourself. That’s what got us here.”
Livers’ message stuck, and the team stuck together.
In Michigan’s 76-58 victory versus Florida State a collective effort led to domination. Four players scored over 12 points (Johns, Dickinson, Wagner, Brown), three had over six rebounds (Dickinson, Wagner, Johns).
Although Michigan getting as far as they did was impressive, there’s no doubt Livers absence led to less cohesion. Livers was Michigan’s best three-point shooter (43.1%), and he was stellar from the charity stripe with a FT% of 87. Michigan struggled with the three against UCLA, going just 3-for-11 (27.%) from behind the arc. The same can be said about free throws, Michigan hit just 6 of their 11 attempts. Livers’ presence in these areas was missed when it mattered most.
“I’m so proud of this group and how they competed all season long during some very difficult times, it’s been a very challenging year but at the end of the day, we all need to walk out of this building with our head up with nothing but humility, gratitude and dignity,” Howard said.
Michigan’s goal was to win a championship, a loss to UCLA in the Elite ended those hopes, but success isn’t just measured in national championships. Michigan had a lot of success this season, and in the tournament. Only one champion can be crowned, and Michigan were still winners this season even if it doesn’t presently seem like it while the agony of defeat still lingers.