Michigan top scorer Isaiah Livers out indefinitely, forcing Juwan Howard to scramble again
Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Juwan Howard has seen and experienced his share of injuries throughout his playing career.
So, after junior forward Isaiah Livers came up hobbling and reaching toward his groin area after a dunk attempt against Presbyterian last weekend, Howard immediately had a bad feeling about it.
"When he came down and he started walking back toward the bench, I knew that right there was a sign of that can be painful and hopefully it's not too serious,” Howard said Friday. “I never had an injury like that but being able to see teammates who have experienced some injuries like that before, I knew it wasn't good.”
As it turns out, it wasn’t. And now No. 11 Michigan (9-3) will be without its leading scorer for the foreseeable future.
According to a Michigan spokesperson, Livers has been ruled out indefinitely with a left groin injury and there is no timetable for his return. No additional details about the severity of the injury were provided.
However, Howard said he does anticipate that Livers will return at some point this season.
“I pray that we do,” Howard said of getting Livers back. “We're going to take it day by day and see each day. I'm going to put my (rubs hands together) 'Karate Kid,' little Mr. Miyagi and see if I can give some of that energy of good health and get him back healthy so he can be out there with us.”
With Livers sidelined, Howard noted it will open the door for sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and sophomore center Colin Castleton to step into the four spot and “do it by committee.”
Castleton has spent most of his time at the five behind senior center Jon Teske. But after Livers exited the Presbyterian game early in the first half with what was called a “muscle strain," Castleton played several long stretches at the forward position alongside Teske in a two-big lineup.
Johns, who didn’t suit up against Presbyterian due to an illness, is back to health and has recently strung together some of the best performances of his career. Over his last three appearances, he’s averaging 9.6 points and seven rebounds in 16.3 minutes.
Howard said he doesn’t know yet who is going to take over Livers’ spot in the starting lineup in Sunday’s non-conference finale against UMass Lowell but added “we’re truly going to be looking at a lot of different bodies to fill that role.”
"We're going to miss (Livers). We don't for how long, but just with his presence out there on the floor, his skill set, he's been shooting the ball very well from the outside,” Howard said. “He’s a guy who has played in a lot of big games, been a starter for us and is having a really good season.
“We trust the guys that are playing behind Isaiah and the work that they're going to be getting in practice, the game reps they're going to receive, that they will be able to give us that production that we need from that four spot.”
Through 12 games, Livers is leading the Wolverines in scoring (13.6 points per game), 3-point shooting (50 percent), made 3-pointers (29) and minutes per game (31.8) as one of the team’s most versatile pieces.
While it won’t be easy to replace everything Livers provides, Howard said he doesn’t want any of the Wolverines to try to do too much in an attempt to fill his shoes.
“I don't want anyone to feel like because the guy who has been averaging 14 points I have to be the next man now to give us 14 points or 16 points,” Howard said. “No, that's not the mentality. That's not what we're looking for. Be that guy who can come out there and give us the stability, defend at the four spot and sometimes at the three spot, communicate our defense, be active defensively, play with a lot of heart, a lot of passion and play the right way.
“I think the production will happen when you have that type of mindset. When you come in and feel like you need to score, score, score, what that does is puts too much pressure on yourself and then it also hurts the team.”
The groin injury is the latest health hurdle Livers will have to deal with and overcome during his Michigan career.
Two seasons ago, he suffered an ankle injury on a fast-break play that forced him to miss a game. Then last season, he dealt with back spasms that sidelined him for a pair of Big Ten contests.
But both of those injuries came with a short recovery window and no long-term concerns.
"I know that any player — and that's Isaiah and anyone who has been injured — when you know that you're going to miss some time and you don't know for how long, it can be very frustrating,” Howard said. “Sometimes players go into a deep depression because they are so competitive they don't want to miss any time. They feel they're letting down their teammates, the staff.
“I just want him to keep the mindset that each and every day the goal is to get improved. Let’s make sure that when you do come out there you're healthy and you're ready to go. Don't feel like you have to rush back. His health is more important than anything.”
For Howard, this will be the second time he will have to juggle the rotation due to an injured starter. Freshman wing Franz Wagner fractured his right shooting wrist during a preseason practice and missed the first four games of the season.
But navigating through such a situation once doesn’t mean it will get any easier for Howard and the Wolverines, especially with the resumption of Big Ten play and a Jan. 5 meeting with rival Michigan State on the horizon.
“Each and every coach wants to have their players that they feel are going to help the team and give them the best chances of winning,” Howard said. “We need all 15 guys. Yes, we've handled some adversity early with Franz being out and that was challenging for us.
“Now with Isaiah, it's going to be even more challenging for our group. But we're going to continue to keep forging ahead and hopefully hold the fort down until he returns.”
UMass Lowell at Michigan
Tip-off: 2 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: UMass Lowell 6-8, No. 11 Michigan 9-3
Outlook: The meeting will mark the second road game in three days for UMass Lowell, which lost at Loyola Maryland, 93-81, on Friday. The Red Hawks are led by senior guard Christian Lutete (19.5 points, 8.1 rebounds) and junior guard Obadiah Noel (15.8 points). …This will be another non-conference game where Michigan will have a distinct size advantage. Nobody on UMass Lowell’s roster is taller than 6-foot-7.