Iowa City — Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson had a premonition.
Before Michigan took the court against Iowa on Tuesday night, he looked freshman forward Isaiah Livers in the eye and told him he was going to have a good game.
Livers did better than that. He turned in the best performance of his young career with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting and several momentous 3-pointers in Michigan’s 75-68 victory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The efficient outing matched Livers’ offensive production from the past six games combined (13 points, 5-for-17 shooting) in nearly a third of the shot attempts.
“From here on, it just makes me play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Livers, who also logged three assists, two steals and two rebounds in a career-high 27 minutes. “Go out there and I know what I can do, what I'm capable of. It just makes me be more confident in myself.
“At first, I would always second think everything. It was always a second thought that I had and I think that was holding me back early in the season. I feel like now I have a lot more confidence than I've ever had.”
The most encouraging sign for Livers was his ability to knock down all three of his open looks from 3-point range, something he had struggled with most of the season.
He entered the contest shooting 28.6 percent from deep and had made just three of his last 16 shots from beyond the arc. Due to the poor numbers, Livers said the Hawkeyes probably weren’t too worried about guarding him in the corner and Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey even said as much following the game.
It ended up working in Michigan’s favor as all his 3-pointers came at key points and helped reestablish a double-digit lead each time.
When Iowa scored six straight to cut the lead to eight in the late first half, Livers buried his first 3-pointer to start a 13-3 run during which he also scored on a driving layup.
Then after Iowa closed within nine in the second half, Livers knocked down another deep ball to spark a quick 7-0 flurry in under a minute.
Roughly four minutes later, the Hawkeyes used to a 7-0 spurt to climb back within nine and bring the crowd back to life. But Livers stepped up once again and stopped the run with a 3-pointer from the corner on a kick out from Simpson.
“That does a lot for a guy,” Simpson said. “Isaiah has been frustrated with his shot but, I mean, he was Michigan Mr. Basketball so he can shoot. For him to knock down those 3s, you see when he makes them he always giving a fist pump and you can hear him say, 'Let's go.' So now he's engaged on defense, now he's getting 50-50 balls, now he's playing good defense, which we need out of him.”
And if the 3-pointers start to fall for Livers, it can add another layer to the offense and lead to defenders biting on his shot fakes, which would open lanes to the rim and passes to teammates.
More importantly, though, it can lead to an enhanced role like Tuesday night and, possibly, a permanent solution for Michigan coach John Beilein.
“Duncan Robinson is a mismatch four that we don’t have another answer for right now,” Beilein said. “D.J. Wilson was the answer last year and he isn’t here this year. Isaiah Livers is going from being a first baseman when you’re a center in high school to now having to play the four and that is like asking him to play shortstop. It’s a whole different thing and it takes time to learn it.
“Isaiah should be playing more in the future. He has been working on that jump shot and his numbers are good in practice. He hasn’t done it in games, but maybe this a breakthrough.”
Michigan coach talks about his freshman forward's performance and evolving role following Tuesday's 75-68 win at Iowa. James Hawkins
WAGNER ‘NOT RIGHT’
Junior center Moritz Wagner had his share of struggles in his second game back from an ankle sprain and bone bruise in his right foot that sidelined him for over two weeks.
He finished with four points on 2-for-6 shooting — with one of those misses coming on a point-blank layup in the second half — four rebounds and two turnovers in 16 minutes.
In the two games since his return, Wagner has 11 points (5-for-13 shooting), 10 rebounds and six turnovers in 36 minutes.
"He's just not right after the injury. He's just not right,” Beilein said. “He was really tender and he was walking funny. Now he's fine but getting that back – if any of you have had an injury to your foot and when you get that cast off, it feels so funny. He's just not himself with his feet.
“He's way off balance and we just got to get back to basics with him. I'm concerned about it because this is something. We need Moe Wagner.”
Beilein said there’s no plan to limit Wagner’s minutes moving forward. Instead, the focus is on getting Wagner’s cardio up in practice this week and restoring his balance.
“I think we're ready to dive in right now. I think he’s healthy,” Beilein said. “We just got to get him more fundamentally sound again.”