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In its first game in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, fourth-seeded Michigan suffered a disappointing loss to Ohio.

The early exit meant that seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass had played their final game and was a low point for the Wolverines, who seemed to be on the rise. But that loss also brought about an important addition — in a roundabout way.

The victory helped propel then-Ohio coach John Groce to get the Illinois job; with his departure, his recruits at Ohio were open to go elsewhere. One of those recruits was an unheralded, rail-thin kid from Pickerington, Ohio, named Caris LeVert.

"Going back to my recruitment, if Ohio doesn't beat Michigan in that NCAA game, I probably wouldn't be here right now," says LeVert, now a junior. "It's just a crazy change of events."

After a breakout season last year as a sophomore at Michigan, averaging 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists, LeVert has higher expectations after being named to the preseason All-Big Ten team.

In his first two years, he was able to play behind a pair of All-American guards: Trey Burke, then Nik Stauskas. In addition to growing an inch to 6-foot-7, he's added some muscle and is about 200 pounds.

With the physical growth he's also grown mentally, ready to assume the scoring and leadership roles passed to him. He'll be the target of opposing teams' best defenders and game plans, with Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III all in the NBA.

"I got stronger again this offseason but it's probably bigger mentally each and every day knowing defenses are going to key on you, so you have to be that much smarter to beat them," LeVert said. "I'm being asked to do more. Last year, I had the same mindset, but this year, it's more of an opportunity to go out there and do it."

Playing behind Burke and Stauskas allowed him to study them closely and emulate some of their moves and gave him a blueprint to achieve success. As a freshman, he used to play one-on-one games with Burke — losing the majority of them, but winning on occasion.

Playing through that adversity brought out LeVert's competitive side, something hidden in his quiet, laid-back personality.

"It definitely helped me; my mindset is that it wasn't a mismatch. It was tougher for him to guard me because I'm six inches taller than him and I felt like that would bother him offensively," LeVert said. "Trey was really a smart guy, so any time I was around him, I was picking his brain; it was a great learning opportunity for me."

Last year, he repeated that with Stauskas, which benefited both players offensively and defensively and helped them win the Big Ten title.

Spike Albrecht noticed LeVert's improvement through those one-on-one sessions and how he's turned the tables, now playing against sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin.

"(Caris) is super-competitive in drills and scrimmages and everything. I don't know if he picked that up from them or if he always had it," Albrecht said. "He's going at guys; he and Derrick are always going at it in practice. The competitiveness and intensity in the gym when we're practicing is unreal."

Because some of the veteran players have become self-starters in practice, coach John Beilein and the staff have been able to focus on the seven freshmen on the roster. But Beilein is conscious of having to balance skill development with all his players, especially given the growth that players have shown in their second year of heavy playing time, as LeVert is now.

"We have to be careful of that because we've been spending so much time and extra work with the young guys — because it's still so early — and not spending nearly as much time with our veterans," Beilein said.

"We're trying to help the young guys, knowing more than just one or two could play. It could be three, four or five guys playing in their first year and we have to get them ready. But we can't forget the development of Caris, Derrick and Spike along the way."

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard

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