Evidently, unknown and strange forces have something against Michigan.
For one reason or another, the basketball gods and powers that be just don’t want to see John Beilein’s Wolverines get ahead in 2014-15, nor do they want to see Caris LeVert complete his expected transformation from star to superstar.
Unexpectedly, that metamorphosis has been put on hold, as the 6’7”, 200-pound junior will miss the rest of the year due to a foot injury suffered Saturday during the Wolverines’ 56-54 win over Northwestern—a game in which he scored a team-high 18 points, dished seven assists, grabbed six boards and blocked a shot.
“Caris has been working so hard this season and for this to happen is very unfortunate," said Beilein, per a Michigan athletic department release. "If we know anything about Caris, he will do everything it takes to not only get better, but to help his teammates during this time. He is a tremendous young man who I will really miss coaching the remainder of the season. However, I am optimistic he will have a complete recovery."
Back in May, LeVert, who graced several preseason watch lists, had surgery on the same left foot—so he’s not entering uncharted territory, but the sudden change of events certainly puts a damper on what looked to be a promising season for the Wolverines’ leading scorer (14.9 points per game).
Since scoring just six during a 64-51 road loss to Purdue, LeVert’s erupted for at least 14 during the past four games, paving the way for three victories in that span.
"While this is obviously not what I wanted, I know this team will come together and be stronger because of it," LeVert said. "Now more than ever, it is important for all of us [to] support this team. For me, I am familiar with the recovery process and what work lies ahead for me. I am very confident that I will return 100 percent and have already begun work to ensure that happens."
Losing LeVert is devastating, and with Ricky Doyle and Spike Albrecht battling illness, not to mention team-wide inconsistencies, the road to contention just got a lot rougher.
Securing a spot in the tournament is now in serious jeopardy.
LeVert was the linchpin of the deal—Michigan wasn’t going to reach to desired heights if he didn’t develop as planned. And as mentioned above, he was well on his way to doing so. He’s had his bad games, and he hadn’t necessarily looked like a projected first-rounder on a nightly basis, but he was certainly on the ascent.
Look back at the four-game losing streak—other than scoring a career-high 32 points versus NJIT, LeVert was largely ineffective, averaging just seven points points during the three other losses. His low output directly affected outcomes.
That stretch was proof positive of Michigan being a different team with a take-charge LeVert.
About two weeks ago, he was asked if he thought he and the team would grow stronger and more assertive as Big Ten play got rolling. He didn’t hesitate to compliment teammates’ work ethics. He was genuinely excited about the immediate future. Good things were on the horizon.
“Yeah, I definitely think so,” he said. “We’re a team that’s definitely gotten a lot better—just within the past couple of weeks, and I think it’ll really show in our play.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to see what LeVert meant. Freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have given boosts from the bench. They’ve even started proving that they’re earning Beilein’s trust.
Doyle’s drawing loose comparisons to Mitch McGary, and that’s music to Wolverines fans ears. Michigan is in desperate need of a bullying big man who can score at the rim and from range. The 6’9”, 245-pound frosh is on track to be exactly what Beilein needs up front.
Sophomores Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton are now “it”—they’ll be tasked with running the show. But are they enough? More importantly: Can they up their levels to compensate for a catastrophic loss?
Walton, a 6’0”, 185-pound point guard, has battled a toe injury but appears to be on the mend. He’s scored at least 12 points during three of the past five games and continues to impress on the boards. Widely regarded as one of the best two-way players in the Big Ten, the Detroit native already had quite the load to shoulder.
It just got a lot heavier.
Irvin, a 6’6”, 215-pound shooting guard, will be equally important. An offensive threat from almost anywhere on the floor, Irvin now takes over the role of No. 1 scoring option, a post once held and/or shared by LeVert.
March wasn’t guaranteed for Michigan—not this year. But making the tournament was certainly expected. However, now that it's without LeVert, Michigan isn't only in danger of missing the dance, it's in danger of finishing below .500 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2009-10 (7-11).
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability.