Ann Arbor — Isaiah Livers sat on the bench in a sweatsuit and watched his teammates go through pregame warm-ups.
Over the past six weeks, it’s been a common scene as Livers, a junior forward, has missed nine of Michigan’s past 10 contests with a lower-body injury.
But there could be a change of scenery coming as soon as Saturday, as Livers will be a game-time decision and could make his return in the rivalry rematch against No. 16 Michigan State at Crisler Center.
“Man, I hope so,” Livers said with a sigh on Friday. “I'm working with (athletic trainer Alex Wong) doing the best I can, trying to lean toward getting back on the court soon. But you never know. It's a day-to-day injury.”
Friday marked the first time Livers has spoken with local media since before he suffered his first injury on Dec. 21. In that game against Presbyterian, Livers exited in the first few minutes of the game after landing awkwardly and injuring his groin on a dunk attempt.
After being sidelined for six games with a left groin injury — including the 87-69 loss to Michigan State on Jan. 5 — Livers returned to the starting lineup and played 20 minutes on Jan. 25 against Illinois, only to reinjure himself on a similar play in the second half.
At the time, it appeared Livers aggravated his groin injury when he got up and immediately grabbed at his groin area like he did on Dec. 21. After the game, Michigan said it was a different injury.
According to Livers, it’s a little bit of both.
“It was (the same injury),” Livers said. “I would use the word ‘tweak’ because it wasn't as bad.
"I think this one, per Alex, there's no micro-tears or nothing tragically bad. It was more of a hip flexor and the stuff around it because when I landed I tried to prevent my body as much as possible to prevent hurting (the groin) again. I turned really weird. I had one leg up, one leg down and just bothered my hip flexor and groin area. I'm actually thankful that it wasn't (the groin) because it probably would've been worse.”
Livers said the rehab process for his second injury has been “pretty smooth sailing” and isn’t as bad as the first time. He added he’s been strengthening his hip and groin, but he still needs to improve his range of motion — “cutting, jumping, explosiveness stuff,” he said — before he can return to full-court action.
Livers said the approach with his latest injury is "definitely a little bit more cautious.”
“I don't want to overwork it,” he said. “I also don't want to underwork it because then I can get out there and have this lazy leg I’m dragging around and can't guard anybody. It's more of the evaluation today, how I’m doing guarding scout team, if I get up and down a couple times. It depends on Coach (Juwan) Howard's plan.”
If Livers is able to return to action Saturday, he doesn’t think his conditioning will be an issue. He has done various exercises — on the ropes and in the pool — with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson to keep his legs and lungs strong.
Regardless of how many minutes he could play, Livers’ presence would be a boon for the Wolverines, who have gone 4-5 without him in the lineup. He is Michigan’s top outside shooter (50% on 3-pointers). He is one of the team’s top scoring options (13.1 points). And he’s one of the team’s most versatile defenders.
It would also be a lift for Livers, who said his prolonged absence has left him feeling “frustrated as heck.”
“You've got to sit there, it's like torture," Livers said. "Got to sit on the bench, coaching, doing the best that you can. Coaching up your teammates to the best of your ability as if you were out there.
"I want to be out there so bad and help them. I just keep praying."
Livers has been able to cope with the frustration by watching a lot of film with the coaching staff and serving as another coach by pointing out stuff he sees to his teammates during games.
He's has also found solace in Howard, who endured a similar tough time during his NBA career.
"I tried not to drift away from my teammates as much as possible,” Livers said. “Coach Howard and the staff did a great job. During the initial injury, Coach Howard said, ‘We're going to keep Isaiah in the loop like he's still playing,’ because you know when you're not playing, you just miss your team, you're depressed, you’re down.
“I tried to talk to them as much as possible to stay up because Coach Howard has been through this before. He's done a good job helping."
Back in March 2005, Howard had a Houston Rockets teammate fall into the back of his knee. The initial diagnosis was a hyperextension that would sideline him for six weeks.
But during the recovery process, Howard came down with the flu, which led to viral myocarditis in his heart and him missing his team's playoff run.
"Like I told Isaiah when he first got injured, it's a process,” Howard said. “It's going to take some time to allow your body to heal and you're going to hit a frustrating moment where there are times you're going to feel like you're in a dark place alone. That's a time where I feel Isaiah needs to be more with his teammates, more around basketball because at times you're going to feel isolated, you're to start feeling a little sad. That can be a frustrating moment.
“He's handled it pretty good, but there are days where you are in a dark place. I've always tried to lift his spirits up by saying my corny jokes or keeping him a little bit more involved with just being around us and asking him questions.”
It’s been a bleak time for both Michigan and Livers, who hasn't played in a full game since Dec. 14.
And one Livers is hoping he'll soon be able to put behind him.
“I'll know it really by zero-zero (on pregame clock), when that buzzer goes off and we're about to do the national anthem,” Livers said. “The adrenaline comes in and you never know, I could be out there playing.”
Michigan State at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: Fox/760, 950
Records: No. 16 Michigan State 16-7, 8-4 Big Ten; Michigan 13-9, 4-7
Outlook: The game will be a “Maize Out” at Crisler Center. Michigan is 1-3 in its last four home games against Michigan State. … Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman account for roughly 42% of Michigan State’s offensive production. The duo combined for 52 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the first meeting on Jan. 5.