Paul: Wolverines don’t let injuries hinder their goals

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Lincoln, Neb. — When the injuries struck the stars a year ago, one after another, Michigan at first was dazed, then eventually crumpled to the mat.

This season, the potential was there for a repeat.

Zak Irvin wasn’t healing as fast as he wanted from back surgery.

Derrick Walton Jr. went down with an ankle injury.

Spike Albrecht’s hips were in serious pain.

And, finally, Caris LeVert suffered a lower left leg injury.

Yet, here is Michigan, squarely in the mix to contend in the Big Ten, and looking good for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, at 15-5 overall, and 5-2 in the Big Ten following Saturday’s 81-68 win at Nebraska.

It’s been something, this maturation process, which less than two months ago seemed like fantasyland, following an embarrassing defeat at SMU.

Nebraska was the second quality Big Ten victory for Michigan, after it beat then-No. 3 Maryland at home. The Texas win back in nonconference play seems like a gem, too, after Texas stunned West Virginia, and nearly did the same to Kansas.

And the Wolverines are building this resume without a senior on the floor.

Albrecht is almost certainly done for the year, his rehab of the hips not going according to plan. And LeVert hasn’t played since the Big Ten opener.

“We wish we had Spike, we wish we had Caris,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “But we’ve gotta make do, and these guys can’t rely on those guys to make those plays.

“They’re improvising.”

No sign of collapse

Michigan started 5-2 in Big Ten play last season, too. And then 6-3.

And then the great collapse began, first with a loss at Michigan State, then at home against Iowa, then at Indiana, then at Illinois, then at home against Michigan State. Five losses in a row, and the season was shot.

There are still challenges ahead this season, too — at least, after the next two games, at home against Rutgers, and in New York against Penn State. Then, three of the next four games will be difficult, at home against Indiana and Michigan State, and at home against Purdue, sandwiched around a road game against pesky Minnesota.

Unlike last season, though, Michigan doesn’t seem to be going anywhere this time. So many of the sophomores and juniors have grown by leaps and bounds from last year, when many of them were pressed into playing too many minutes.

The Wolverines need five more wins out of their final 11 games to all but guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and it’s very manageable, especially if LeVert returns soon, as it sounds like he’s preparing to do.

In his absence, Irvin and Walton have stepped up at the point, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has joined the starting lineup and thrived on offense and defense, Duncan Robinson has become more than a one-trick pony, and Mark Donnal, well, he’s been outstanding.

LeVert always was a threat to lead his team in scoring, assists and rebounds — as evidenced by the first triple-double of his career, earlier this season. With him out, everybody’s had to step it up — and they have. Anybody can lead the team in scoring, everybody’s looking to make that extra pass, and Walton and Donnal, notably, have become rebounding machines.

LeVert, though he’d like to play, is loving what he’s seeing.

“We’re down one of our brothers,” Walton said of LeVert. “Guys are just making plays he would normally make.

“(We’re) looking over seeing him happy for the guys that are getting the opportunities with him being out.”

Frontcourt much-improved

Beating Maryland was the first sign that Michigan, indeed, is a legit threat.

Beating Nebraska on the road Saturday might’ve been an even bigger sign, though, given it was on the road — any win on the road in the Big Ten, with the possible exception of Rutgers, is not to be discounted — and against a Nebraska team that had just won at Michigan State.

The Wolverines also were as tough as they’ve been, winning the rebounding battle, substantially. And every time the Cornhuskers mounted a challenge, and the packed house started booming, the Wolverines didn’t budge.

In many ways, that starts with Donnal, who’s no longer in the “wait-and-see” category — he’s been a stud from the day Big Ten play started at Illinois and hasn’t let up. Nobody saw that coming, at least nobody outside the program, not after he lost his starting gig three games into the season.

Michigan still doesn’t have near the frontcourt of Purdue, or Maryland, or Iowa, or even Nebraska. But there’s now at least an option — or two; Moritz Wagner has his issues, but is a scoring threat — unlike earlier in the season, so defenses can’t completely load up on all the perimeter threats.

That’s just one area Michigan has grown since December. There are countless others, nothing more paramount than the players simply bonding on the court. Beilein raved about the late-game pass from Abdur-Rahkman to a cutting Robinson, who threw down a two-handed dunk. Abdur-Rahkman assisting and Robinson dunking wasn’t on the menu three weeks ago.

“It just takes maturity,” Beilein said. “It just takes time.”

Beilein has been preaching that all season, after the ugly losses and even the ugly wins.

Now, it’s getting a whole lot easier to believe him.