On May 12th, 2012, a skinny kid from Pickerington, Ohio committed to Michigan after spurning hometown school Ohio. That kid is Caris LeVert. LeVert was listed at 6'4 and a generous 152 pounds, and his long arms and gangly body joined the Michigan team for the 2012 season. LeVert's lack of strength made him a prime candidate for a redshirt, but coach John Beilein thought that his length and defensive skills were valuable enough on an already loaded Michigan team.
LeVert never started as a freshman, but got increasingly more minutes as the season went on. In the Final Four game against Syracuse, LeVert played fearlessly, playing 21 minutes while totaling 8 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists. It wasn't fancy, but it was a step in the right direction to becoming great.
With the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., a spot in the starting lineup opened up. LeVert took it by the horns, and worked hard over the summer to refine his game and gain muscle. It really showed, as LeVert was a completely different player his sophomore campaign. His minutes increased from 10 a game to 34, as he totaled 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game. He generally guarded the opponent's best player, and took another step in his development.
With Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III all leaving early for the NBA draft, and the departures of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, LeVert and Spike Albrecht were the only remaining players who played in the Final Four two seasons ago. LeVert was the undisputed leader, the team's best player, and its best chance to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
For the first two and a half months of the season, LeVert led Michigan. He had 32 points in a loss to NJIT, and as recent as Saturday night, he willed the Wolverines to victory over Northwestern, 56-54. Beyond the points, LeVert led Michigan in pretty much every major statistical category, including assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal attempts and minutes played. Losing LeVert is a huge blow all around.
But as sports always tells us, when someone goes down, the next man steps up. Michigan's roster continues to get increasingly depleted. D.J. Wilson hasn't played in a month. Spike Albrecht sat out last night with a respiratory infection. Even Ricky Doyle was held out of the entire second half with a cold. Michigan has 12 conferences games left and at least one Big Ten tournament game, but they need to retool their entire offense without LeVert. Here's my best guess as to the lineup and the rotation from here on out:
Point Guard- Derrick Walton Jr.: Walton played all 40 minutes in the win over Northwestern on Saturday, and will need to continue playing big minutes. He had 14 points, and all of his made shots were on 3-point attempts. He continues to be phenomenal on the boards, grabbing another 5, but 0 assists is a little bit concerning for a point guard.
Shooting Guard- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht sat out against Northwestern, but Michigan needs him to continue to play at a high level. In his last 3 games, he is shooting a combined 5-16 for 10 points, but he did accumulate 6 assists against Penn State. Albrecht is a bit of a liability defensively at 5'11, but is a great offensive facilitator. He plays with great intensity, and if anyone is going to make the leap, I expect it to be Albrecht.
Small Forward- Zak Irvin: Irvin has been in a nasty slump, but hit one massive shot to give Michigan a 53-49 lead with under 4 minutes to play. Irvin has never been afraid to shoot the ball, and he'll have even more attempts now that LeVert's 12 attempts per game are gone. Irvin is a great scorer, but he'll need to improve upon 4 rebounds and 1 assist per game.
Power Forward- Aubrey Dawkins: Kameron Chatman, in my opinion, has been absolutely horrendous, so I'm giving the start to Dawkins simply based on Chatman playing himself out of it. Dawkins gives Michigan a long, active wing that can guard multiple positions and shoot from deep. His athleticism is still his best asset, and it will be interesting to see if Beilein runs any lob plays for him as the season goes on.
Center- Ricky Doyle: Doyle was clearly not himself on Saturday night, as he seemed visibly winded and only played 10 minutes (all in the first half). Doyle is still Michigan's best option at center, and he continues to be active and has done a great job finishing at the rim. My knocks on Doyle are the slowly improving rebounding and defensive effort down low. Alex Olah, a role player generally for Northwestern, finished with 22 points and 7 rebounds and absolutely manhandled Michigan's bigs. Rutgers won't be too tough of a test on Tuesday, but Frank Kaminsky could have a field day on Saturday if Michigan isn't careful.
The Bench: With LeVert out, the bench becomes even more important. Players that have played 10 minutes a game could be asked to play 20+, and this was apparent in Saturday's game.
Point Guard- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: MAAR had his first collegiate start on Saturday and was up for the challenge. He finished with 9 points and 5 rebounds in 27 minutes of play, and only committed one turnover. He seems ready to play right now, and if he can give Michigan 15 minutes a game behind Walton and Albrecht, he could be a huge asset for Michigan down the stretch.
Wing- Kameron Chatman: As I discussed above, Chatman continues to be a huge disappointment to me. He only played 9 minutes last night, and finished with 2 points (he traveled on the basket) and 2 rebounds. He still seems lost on both offense and defense, but Michigan is hoping that he can bring together a few good flashes and turn them into sustained periods of good play.
Center- Mark Donnal: Donnal had arguably his worst game of the season last night, going 0-2, finishing with 1 rebound and committing 4 fouls in 11 minutes of play. He seemed lost on multiple possessions, and Olah was able to dominate him all night. Donnal is out there to stretch the defense and shoot, but until he can do that on a consistent basis, Beilein has no choice but to stay with Doyle.
Center- Max Bielfeldt: With Donnal committing 4 fouls and Doyle unable to play in the second half, Beilein had no choice but to insert senior Max Bielfeldt. Bielfeldt played admirably, finishing with 5 points and 2 rebounds on 2-6 shooting. At 6'7, he's not able to give Michigan the type of size down low that they need, but in a bind, he can be called upon. It will be interesting to see what Beilein does with him the rest of the season, especially against 7-footers (see Kaminsky, Frank).
Life without LeVert is officially upon us. Michigan sits at 11-7 overall, and 4-2 in the Big Ten. They have a very winnable game against Rutgers on Tuesday, and then have College Gameday coming to Ann Arbor on Saturday for a massive game against Wisconsin. This two game stretch might not break Michigan's season, but it has the potential to make it. If they're able to win both, maybe Coach Beilein can bring together this team when it counts. If not, the rest of Big Ten play could get ugly.