Michigan’s Isaiah Livers gets baptism by fire in first start

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan's Isaiah Livers dunks against Michigan State on Saturday.

East Lansing – Freshman forward Isaiah Livers admitted he hasn’t gotten pre-game jitters in a long time.

That includes Michigan’s 82-72 road win over No. 4 Michigan State in front of a packed and rowdy crowd at the Breslin Center on Saturday.

In arguably Michigan’s biggest game of the season, Livers earned his first start due to the matchup and his recent stretch of play, replacing fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson in the lineup at the four.

“I haven't been nervous since, shoot, my first football game as a kid,” Livers said. “I just think of it as … just think of myself coming off the bench, staying calm and playing my game, playing with confidence.

“My dad preaches that a lot. Even though you're starting, it doesn't make a difference. You go out there and play your basketball and execute.”

More: Niyo: Bold Moe revels in rivalry, silences the Spartans

Livers credited senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, junior center Moritz Wagner, who led Michigan with a career-high 27 points, and Robinson for helping prepare him for Saturday’s raucous environment and telling him what to do in certain situations throughout the game.

On defense, Livers was given the unenviable task of guarding Michigan State freshman sensation Jaren Jackson Jr., who is projected as a top 10 pick in this year’s NBA draft.

Livers received a few tips from fellow freshman Jordan Poole, who played with Jackson last year at La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind. Still, Jackson provided plenty of problems and finished with 19 points – 10 coming from the free-throw line – and six blocks for the Spartans.

“I knew a little something about him and he definitely lived up to his expectations today,” Livers said. “(Poole) just said he's a real skilled 6-11 guy that can block shots that you don't think he can block. He's a really good player.”

While Livers had been providing a scoring punch with 35 points off the bench the past three games, his main contribution was on the defensive end helping neutralize some of Michigan State’s size in the interior.

It was especially critical in the first half when all three of Michigan’s centers – Wagner, Jon Teske and Austin Davis – picked up two early fouls and forced Michigan coach John Beilein to go small with Livers at the five.

“I definitely told him just play your game, do the same things you've been doing to help us be in this position,” sophomore guard Zavier Simpson said. “He didn't seem nervous. He actually took it really well. He said he was going to do his best for the team. He came in and played great defense. In the type of environment like this for him to step up and do that, it means a lot.”

Livers finished with six points on 3-for-5 shooting and two rebounds in 25 minutes, and stamped the win with a dunk in the closing seconds. More importantly, though, he learned a valuable lesson or two along the way.

“He was OK. I think he worked out all right,” Beilein said. “I don’t think it was the moment. The game is coming to him and every day it’s going to be better. Duncan had been here before, that’s why – he was in foul trouble – but Isaiah was more in the little things to determine games and he learned a lot of those things today.

"But at the same time, he’s really a good matchup for us defensively. Offensively, he wasn’t tonight, but he can be as he grows as a player.”

Free throw fest

Michigan was whistled for 25 personal fouls and put Michigan State in the bonus with 15:06 left in the first half and 14:18 left in the second half.

It led to the Wolverines surrendering both season highs in free-throw attempts (32) and makes (27).

“It's hard to do that,” Beilein said. “Some of that is self-inflicted and some of that is driven by Michigan State. They're good at drawing fouls, they get there and then they're just a tremendous foul-shooting team.

“You can take away some of the 3s, take away some of those foul shots you have a chance to beat them, but it's really hard to take away those two things from them.”

Michigan, meanwhile, entered the game shooting 64.7 percent from the stripe, but made its first 19 attempts before Simpson missed four straight in an 18-second span late in the second half.

Simpson redeemed himself by going 3-for-4 from the line in the final 1:34. He finished 5-for-10 for the game.

“At that time, that's the wrong time to get down on yourself and worry about yourself,” said Simpson, who had 16 points and five assists in 30 minutes. “As a basketball player, of course you're going to think about it like, 'Man, you just missed four.' But at the same time, you got to just fight through it. I got another opportunity the next time and I think I went 2-for-2.”

Michigan finished 28-for-35 on free throws — both season highs — and was led by Wagner (8-for-8) and Abdur-Rahkman (7-for-7). The 80-percent mark also tied the team’s second-best free throw percentage in a game this season.