Who knew losing to The New Jersey Institute of Technology wouldn’t be the worst news of the season for the Michigan Wolverines basketball program?
Just as Michigan was starting to turn the corner, jumping out to a 5-2 record in the Big Ten (12-7 overall), worse news struck down the program when it was learned leading scorer and NBA Draft-hopeful Caris LeVert was lost for the season with a broken foot.
Heading into the season, LeVert was coming off foot surgery (on the same foot) in May of 2014. He had said he played the last few weeks of the 2013-14 season with the fractured foot. However, his offseason surgery had been considered a success. He had a great summer in Italy and looked revitalized heading into the season.
Alas, it still didn’t matter in the end as the break is now worse than it was last year.
With the Wolverines losing Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan in the offseason, Michigan was already shorthanded and playing with a whole new set of players. Head coach John Beilein is now left scrambling for a way to replace LeVert while trying to keep up the team’s momentum.
LeVert’s absence will definitely cast a huge shadow over the program. For a team that was struggling most of the season, he was the one constant. As a junior who had by far played the most minutes of anybody on the team heading into the season, his leadership will be greatly missed. Not to mention, LeVert was leading the team in scoring (14.9 ppg), rebounding (4.9 rpg), assists (3.7 apg) and steals (1.8).
Suffice to say, that’s not easy to replace.
Michigan, though, does have some talent to work with. Granted, we’re talking young talent here as Michigan does have six true freshmen and a redshirt freshman.
It will be two sophomores, though, (forward Zak Irvin and point guard Derrick Walton Jr.) who will be counted on most to carry the big load. Walton and Irvin have a year and a half of major experience (remember these Wolverines did take Kentucky to the wire in last year’s Elite Eight). Irvin is second on the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) while Walton Jr. is third (10.4 ppg).
Between LeVert, Irvin and Walton Jr., they are the only players averaging double figures in scoring for the Wolverines. The next closest after them is freshman center Ricky Doyle (6.9 ppg). As you can see this is a top-heavy team that relies on its upperclassmen.
One player who could emerge from the shadows is prized freshman Kameron Chatman. Chatman was considered a top-50 recruit with a multi-purpose skill set, much like LeVert possesses.
Although Chatman is averaging just 3.9 points per game on a woeful .295 shooting from the floor, he has tremendous upside. He was known in high school for his ability to bang in the paint while also playing well with the ball in his hands. You might just see Beilein take off the kid gloves and run Chatman loose.
Of course, you might also see a lot more of junior guard Spike Albrecht.
While he averages 4.9 points and 27.9 minutes per game, expect those numbers to rise with LeVert sidelined. We all know Albrecht can shoot (Does anyone remember his first half in the 2013 title game against Louisville?), although he is shooting just .319 percent from three-point range this season. He has no shot conscience though, and expect him to let more shots fly.
Look for Beilein to mix and match his rotations, sometimes going big with Doyle, fellow freshman Mark Donnal and senior Max Bielfeldt, while also allowing his guards to improvise. Michigan, after all, is known for its inside-out approach to the game.
This will be a steep learning process with LeVert out for the year, but Beilein is one of the better teachers, and he is not a novice in this game.
With two emerging sophomores in Irvin and Walton Jr., a steady influence in Albrecht and a capable freshman class, this season should not be written off in Ann Arbor. While it may take a Herculean effort to get back to the NCAA Tournament, Beilein will have this team getting better with each game and use LeVert’s absence as a valuable teaching tool.