Caris LeVert injury means ‘next man up’ for Michigan

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan dealt with just one serious injury over the last three seasons.

Other than Mitch McGary’s back injury last season, the Wolverines stayed healthy and consistent.

The fact that players like Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III stayed healthy throughout their careers was why Michigan was able to accomplish so much.

The injury good fortune appears to have run out.

First it was freshman forward DJ Wilson, who was sidelined with a broken pinky finger in the summer and suffered a knee injury early in the season. Wilson played in four games this season and is expected to take a medical redshirt.

Sophomore point guard Derrick Walton suffered a turf toe injury in the waning moments of Michigan’s five point loss to Villanova. That injury in Michigan’s fifth game of the season has plagued Walton’s explosiveness, confidence and ability as he’s suffered through a mediocre sophomore season.

In early December, the Wolverines announced that Spike Albrecht was suffering through an ‘undisclosed lower leg injury’ and had decided to play through the season rather than undergo surgery in the summer.

On Saturday, Michigan was without Albrecht — the first game that he missed during his organized basketball career — due to an upper respiratory infection while Ricky Doyle was limited to just 10 minutes with similar issues. After the game John Beilein announced that sophomore forward Zak Irvin was also battling illness and had been on medication for the last three days.

But the most devastating blow came in the closing seconds of the Wolverines narrow victory. As Michigan buckled down and picked up a critical stop to win the game, Caris LeVert rolled his foot in the aftermath. LeVert slapped the floor in frustration, limped to do his postgame television injury and left the stadium on crutches.

Fifteen hours later it was announced that he would undergo foot surgery this week and miss the remainder of the season. LeVert injured the same foot that he had surgery on in May and will be forced to go through a similar 12 week period of rehabilitation and recovery.

Simply put, LeVert was everything to the 2014-15 Wolverines. He led the Wolverines in points, minutes, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks and was the only consistent creator on an otherwise one-dimensional roster. In Michigan’s 56-54 win over Northwestern, LeVert scored or assisted 14 of Michigan’s 20 made field goals, including all but one make in the second half.

The 2014-15 Wolverines were always a flawed team, but there was still a chance that they could fight their way to a surprising NCAA tournament berth despite a disappointing December. The injury to LeVert might just be the knockout punch for a season that was already teetering on the brink.

LeVert’s announced 12 week rehabilitation means that he’ll be healthy this spring and will have to make a serious decision about his future. The 20 year old junior can return for his senior season at Michigan and prove he’s healthy or make jump to the NBA before his foot becomes a more serious concern.

NBA scouts and analysts agree that LeVert had a disappointing season, but still project him somewhere in the mid-to-late picks of the first round or early in the second round.

In the near term, Michigan has to worry about putting together enough healthy bodies to play Rutgers on Tuesday. Michigan’s active roster now includes Derrick Walton (toe), Spike Albrecht (sick), Zak Irvin (sick), Ricky Doyle (sick), Kameron Chatman, Mark Donnal, Max Bielfeldt, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins.

In the long-term, LeVert’s injury could provide an invaluable opportunity for Michigan’s roster to adjust to new roles and grow up, even if it’s not in the way that anyone imagined.

It’s ‘next man up’ for Michigan, and the young players on this roster have no choice other than to embrace the opportunity.

Walton has seemed content to defer for the first year and a half of his career. He’s hit some big shots, but he’s never been the sort of ball dominant point guard that Michigan’s offense featured with Trey Burke and Darius Morris. The next two months might be as important for Walton as anyone else on the roster. Sooner or later, this was always going to be his team. Now LeVert’s injury has accelerated that time frame.

Albrecht might be the most natural facilitator left on the roster. Albrecht can distribute the ball and knock down shots when he’s clicking, but he’s not a two-point scoring threat, he’s a defensive liability and he’s already been playing major minutes. His leadership and understanding of the offense will be most important as he’s now the Wolverines’ most experienced player.

Abdur-Rahkman is coming off the best game of his career and now could be a starter for the next 12 games. He’s undeniably rough around the edges, but he’s now Michigan’s third and final primary ball handler. He’s not ready to play 30 minutes per game at this level, but the Wolverines will hope that the experience he gains helps him be ready for next season.

Aubrey Dawkins has hit some big shots for Michigan, but he has just one assist to his name in 144 minutes of game time. He’ll play significantly more minutes, but hasn’t shown the ball skills that Beilein’s offense requires on the wing.

Zak Irvin’s season has gone into a tailspin over the last month. He’s struggling with his shooting stroke and his effort and hasn’t shown any signs of being the sort of creator that can replace some of LeVert’s production.

Kameron Chatman, Michigan’s highest rated incoming recruit, has also struggled. He doesn’t have the athleticism to finish around the basket and has gone from starter to bit player off the bench over the course of the season. Chatman has clearly struggled this year, but his 18 assists are still more than Irvin, Abdur-Rahkman and Dawkins have combined.

No one in that group has shown the ability to replace things that LeVert brings to the table. This isn’t a roster that’s prepared to go on the road and beat Maryland or Michigan State. There will be bumps in the road, but there’s an opportunity for the Wolverines to lay the groundwork and foundation of the program for years to come.

How Michigan’s unproven players respond to this adversity will say a lot about their futures in Ann Arbor. Sink or swim, Michigan’s young players are going to be thrown into the fire.

LeVert might be back next season or he might be in the NBA, but the rest of Michigan’s roster will be back and this is their chance to prove what they can bring to the table.

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  • robpollard

    It’s going to get ugly these next 12 games. Hopefully, as noted above, they can develop their games and get ready for next year, and not let the inevitable 82-61 beat downs shake their confidence.

    I’m guessing they’ll win 2-3 more games this season, but I can’t see any more than that unless Walton turns in Burke 2.0 and Irvin makes a 180 turnaround.

    • Corperryale

      I (weirdly) think they might do OK. Would not bet money on it, but still. Maybe dispensing with the Big Three narrative will allow some other guys to step up and become leaders. At the very least they should have the opportunity to find their rhythms and not worry about getting yanked for each turnover. As Dylan said, it’s sink or swim from here on in.

      • A2MIKE

        @Rutgers, @NW and Rutgers at home. I feel like we can win all those games, plus home games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin, with JB as our coach I like us to pull the upset in one of those games, which puts us at 9-9 in the league. I think that is just as realistic as tanking and only winning 1-2 games from here out.

        • robpollard

          Wow, you are optimistic. I thought *with* Levert, that 7-8 wins was most likely, with a ceiling of 10-11. I’m sure if things go great, they could possibly still win 8 games, but that’s the realistic (and optimistic) max.

          Take @NW — we barely beat them, at home, with LeVert. Why would that be a likely (or even 50-50) win away? It’s certainly possible, but not very likely.

          I’ll be more than happy to be very surprised. But based upon how this team has performed already, I can’t see it doing better than 7-11 w/o Levert.

  • Chris De Sana

    Just wondering………. if Kam struggles through the balance of the season would anyone be shocked that he transferred out ala Carlton Brundidge?

    • Corperryale

      No clue what Chatman is thinking, but pretty sure Brundidge played about 20 seconds per game in 2011. Going into that season a lot of people thought that he and Burke would be about evenly matched (as ridiculous as that now seems) and that proved to be untrue from day one. Also, didn’t Brundidge transfer at the same time as Smotrycz and Christian? With the 2012 class coming in, I think they all likely saw the writing on the wall. Chatman has already had way more PT than CB and will likely get more from here on in, especially with LeVert’s injury. Plus, where would he go? It’s not like Arizona would be begging him to come at this point. Anyway, I hope he stays. A lot of opportunities at Michigan.

      • Chris De Sana

        We agree with the current make up of this team he will have more opportunity at Michigan to compete at the highest level but kids do not always see it the same way. Most are into instant gratification especially if you are a 5 star recruit.

        • A2MIKE

          Brundidge was a freshman for the 2011-12 season, didn’t play much and saw the 5 incoming recruits in 2012-13, plus Burke winning B1G FOY and decided to bolt. Chatman will look at next year’s incoming recruits and see nobody and still have that 4 position begging for him to take it. No way he transfers due to playing time, now missing home or the like, possibly that could be a reason, but I hope he stays as well. He can be a great player in this system, but it takes time to learn. Some players learn quick, ala Burke and some take a year ala Darius Morris.

          • MAZS

            I like your Morris comparison. Alot. Chatman was a much higher recruit than Brundidge and is a better player with much higher upside. I think he will be a significant contributor next season. Though I too have some concerns about his transferring.

  • Rafteryisinsane

    Really good analysis, Dylan. Thanks. I think Irvin and Chapman are the wild cards, as they are athletic enough to make a significant contribution to the offense, but mentally they seems to be hesitant, especially on driving the hoop.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    there’s no better way for these young players to develop in game…kam, ali, ricky, donnal, dawkins will all progress come end of the season….its going to be tough to watch some of these games but if everyone returns next year we will be a ncaa tourney threat imo…

    • Fab 5 Legends

      without Levert don’t see this team winning more than 2 games the rest of the season especially how up and down Walton & Irvin play…Nebraska at home & possibly Iowa at home…I think Rutgers will be a tough out at their place…looking forward seeing these players develop

      • MAZS

        I don’t know how many games we will win, but not likely many. That said, I’d choose different best shots—MSU at home (they are inconsistent obviously), Northwestern on the road (still limited skill-wise) and Rutgers at home. The latter two are at the end of the season and, hopefully, we will be doing our “new” thing better by then.