Freshman forward talks about what parts of his game he's been working on before UM travels to face Northwestern on Tuesday. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — For freshman forward Isaiah Livers, it’s all about being aggressive.
Gone are the days when Livers would fly under the radar off the bench and be left alone out on the perimeter.
Since moving into Michigan’s starting lineup, Livers has attracted more attention by opposing defenses. As a result, he’s striving to attack more — on offense, on defense and on the glass.
Entering Tuesday’s game at Northwestern, Livers is averaging 4.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 21 minutes, and is shooting 46.4 percent from the field in seven games as a starter. Michigan has gone 5-2 during the span.
“As long as we’re winning, I think I’m playing where I need to be,” Livers said Monday. “Of course, Coach (John Beilein) is always going to expect more out of you and I expect more out of myself, so I’m always looking to play better but I feel like I’m playing all right.
“It was different coming off the bench and having no scouting report. They’d just leave me wide open in the corner. I don’t get that anymore, so that’s what I’m working on more — shot fake, take an extra dribble; get contact, get to the line; go for a layup or pull-up (jumper).”
Through 25 games, Livers has attempted just four free throws and was a bit perplexed about how improve on that in practice. But he said it comes down to not settling for shots and being more physical on offense — slicing through the defense off the catch, getting two feet in the paint, putting his body more into the defender when he walls up and trying to finish at the rim instead of always trying to find the open man.
And being more of an aggressive offensive rebounder — crashing the boards and going back up strong —helps make that development much easier, too.
But the biggest area of growth for Livers as of late has been defensively, particularly his ability to recognize switching patterns on ball screens and guard out on the perimeter.
“It always helps the defense for the four man to switch out and guard the point guard. Then whenever you get a chance, switch back so the point guard can guard his man so there’s no mismatch down low,” he said. “I think my defensive awareness has gotten way better in the past month.”
However, it hasn’t translated into a lion’s share of the minutes at the four. Since replacing fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson in the lineup, the duo has been splitting time and each has played at least 20 minutes four times in the last seven games.
Over the last four games, Livers’ numbers have dipped. He has played 17 minutes or less three times and has scored just 11 points, while Robinson has played 27 minutes or more three times and tallied 35 points.
“The coach has to put him in the game, probably. That’s what has to happen,” Beilein said of Livers, who recorded 35 points over his last three games off the bench.
“He’s not doing anything wrong. Duncan has a feel for what we’re doing, and it makes everybody else a little bit better. Isaiah has a similar feel but not where Duncan is. So, coach probably has to play him more for him to just be confident. I think he’s playing really well actually.”
Beilein noted if Livers was a senior mired in a six-game slide, he would be concerned. Instead, Beilein said it’s just the typical ebbs and flows most freshmen go through in a season.
“There’s improvement in some areas that he’s got to score without just a jump shot. He’s done a great job on the offensive boards giving us extra possessions and he got to the foul line the other day,” Beilein said. “It’s not a matter of what he does, it’s a matter of where his growth cycle is right now. He’s just got to continue to understand the game and move quicker.”
Beilein said he doesn’t know the answer to why Michigan has continually struggled early in recent games.
In the opening 10 minutes of the first half, the Wolverines scored five points against Northwestern, 13 points against Rutgers and 15 points against Minnesota.
“Our kids at the beginning are maybe trying too hard,” Beilein said. “There’s anxieties at the front end of the game that are getting in our way. Anxieties or just a lack of focus early in the game.”
Beilein said he’s not going to shake up the starting lineup in an effort to get off to better starts.
… Beilein said sophomore guard Zavier Simpson and redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews continue to do well in free-throw reps, but struggle with pressure free throws at the end of practice.
“The only thing they can do is don’t stop, we got to continue to do it,” Beilein said. “I have one idea they’re going have to make more pressure ones and just end the practice with a make instead of a miss, which happens too many times.”