February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

Michigan's Caris LeVert emerges from background, gains confidence and respect

Caris LeVert: 'You can never be satisfied with your game.' (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- In the postgame press conference following Michigan’s loss at Duke on Dec. 3, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski had some glowing compliments for a U-M player:

“He was terrific. Instead of just shooting the ball from the outside, he drove the ball and gave them a huge lift. ...,” Krzyzewski said. “They were having a hard time scoring and (he) put them on his back, and he was terrific.”

He wasn’t referring to Nik Stauskas, a candidate for Big Ten player of the year, who was held to four points.

It wasn’t Mitch McGary, a preseason All-America, who had 15 points and 14 rebounds, or Glenn Robinson III, who was projected along with McGary to be NBA lottery picks after last season.

Krzyzewski was lauding Caris LeVert, who burned Duke for 24 points.

“That was a huge confidence-booster for me, going in there and playing so well in such a tough environment against a very good Duke team,” LeVert said. “I gained a lot of confidence from that, moving forward.”

After averaging 2.3 points during his freshman season, LeVert has burst onto the scene for the Wolverines (18-7, 10-3 Big Ten) and has become another headache for opposing coaches trying to decode Michigan’s offense.

Working on consistency

“You can never be satisfied with your game. Getting more consistent is one of the things I’m working on,” LeVert said. “Just getting better consistency, getting stronger and more explosive are my biggest areas of improvement.”

LeVert — who had a career-high 25 points in Sunday’s loss to Wisconsin — is second on the team, averaging 13 points. He’s displaying an all-around game that is perking up as defenses are looking to neutralize Stauskas. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, asked about defending LeVert, explained the quandary.

“You want to take somebody off somebody else and double him? Who are you going to leave open?” Ryan said. “I’ll let you pick. … Robinson, Stauskas?”

“That’s why they’re a good team — they have multiple weapons.”

As Michigan prepares to face Michigan State on Sunday for the lead in the Big Ten race, LeVert, a 6-foot-6 guard, has become more than just an X-factor for the Wolverines. He’s scored in double figures in six of the last seven games, including 17 in the win in the first meeting at MSU.

It’s a strange juxtaposition — that he even ended up at Michigan is a story in itself.

'A crazy time'

In 2012, LeVert was a senior at Ohio’s Pickerington Central High School and was set to go to Ohio University — coincidentally, Michigan’s first opponent in the NCAA Tournament.

He recalled being excited to watch the game with Taco Charlton, a high school teammate who was going to U-M for football.

“I think I watched the game with Taco because we were on the same basketball team and I teased him about how I knew Ohio was going to win,” LeVert said. “I’ve always liked watching Michigan and thought they were a fun team. With Trey (Burke) being from Columbus, they were also one of my favorite teams to watch.”

But after No. 13 seed Ohio pulled the upset and head coach John Groce later left for Illinois, LeVert reopened his recruitment.

“My mom and I took a couple visits to Dayton, Purdue and Michigan all in one trip,” he said. “Michigan was our last stop and I committed on my visit. It was a crazy time.”

Last season, LeVert was a redshirt candidate, sitting for the first six games before making his debut at Bradley. A frail 162 pounds, LeVert impressed the U-M staff in practice and played in the final 33 games but didn’t score in double figures in a single game.

In practice, he played one-on-one games with Burke, the national player of the year. When LeVert finally won one of the games, it was a watershed moment for his confidence.

“There were a lot of people watching and he was kind of embarrassed and all our teammates were watching,” LeVert said. “It was probably a buildup of the other times — I was destined to beat him one time. When I did beat him, it seemed like I expected myself to win after that.”

Along with Stauskas, he stayed all summer and worked with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson, gaining strength and packing on 25 pounds from last year.

All that work is paying off for LeVert — who’s no longer a footnote on the opposing scouting report. Now, more opposing coaches than ever are talking about him.

Seven-game surge

In the last seven games, Caris LeVert has led Michigan in scoring (16.4) and rebounds (6.4).

Opponent Pts. Reb.
At Michigan State 17 8
Purdue 14 11
At Indiana 12 3
Nebraska 16 7
At Iowa 22 5
At Ohio State 9 5
Wisconsin 25 6

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard