The Detroit News' James Hawkins and John Niyo recap Michigan's 77-68 win over Michigan State that snapped a four-game skid in the rivalry series. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — The opponent didn’t matter for Michigan’s Isaiah Livers.
Whether it was non-conference game against a low-major team or a Big Ten rivalry game like Saturday’s contest against No. 16 Michigan State, Livers didn’t care.
All that mattered to Livers, a junior forward, was that he was finally able to return to health and return to action after having to deal with two lower-body injuries over the last two months.
“It honestly didn't matter who we were playing,” Livers said after the 77-68 win at Crisler Center. “I was excited to get back out there because all the work you put in, the love you have for your teammates and the game of basketball, it was huge to get back out there.
“I know we had wins where I wasn't playing. But to actually be a part of it and actually be out there doing something and physically being able to go out there and help my team instead of watching, that was the biggest thing for me.”
Prior to Saturday’s contest, Livers had missed nine of Michigan’s last 10 games. He suffered a left groin injury after being fouled on a dunk attempt and landing awkwardly against Presbyterian on Dec. 21.
After a month of rehab that cost him six games, Livers was back in the starting lineup against Illinois on Jan. 25 — only to have his return cut short. In the second half of that contest, he hurt himself again on a nearly identical play.
According to Livers, it was more of a hip flexor than a groin injury and there was “nothing tragically bad.” Still, the setback led to another round of rehab with athletic trainer Alex Wong. That left Livers “frustrated as heck” as he missed three more games and watched Michigan go 4-5 with him sidelined.
The hurdle this time around was getting his range of motion — cutting, jumping, explosion — back to where it was before the second injury. After fully participating in practice on Friday and moving well in pregame warm-ups on Saturday, Livers was good to go and provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the Wolverines (14-9, 5-7 Big Ten).
“It gave us a lot of confidence,” senior center Jon Teske said. “To have him back, it just energized everyone.”
That includes coach Juwan Howard, who went through a similar tough time during his NBA career and made it a priority to keep Livers’ spirits up throughout the process.
“Zay is a talent, it's that simple. We missed him a lot,” Howard said. “We missed having another guy like Zay who can not only make shots, but a guy who has a high basketball IQ that knows how to make plays.
“It was good to see that he came back today healthier than what he's been like in the past. It was truly inspiring to see how his teammates rallied behind him.”
The impact a healthy Livers was able to make was noticeable in the stat sheet: 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting, four rebounds, two blocks, one steal and one assist in 31 minutes.
But the greatest difference he makes — his voice, leadership, ability to effectively switch screens, ability to stretch the defense — doesn’t show up in the box score.
“Sometimes just someone's presence can mean a lot,” senior guard Zavier Simpson said. “He definitely opens up on the offensive end because of his shooting ability and being able to attack. On defense, he's a leader. He's talking to us and just covering up a lot of mistakes that we may make.”
Make no mistake, Livers' return couldn't have come soon enough for a Michigan team that's trying to claw its way out the Big Ten basement and off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The good news is Livers said everything, from his mind to his body, felt good throughout the game and the thought of his lower-body injuries weren’t in the back of his head.
He noted the previous setbacks didn’t change his mindset around the rim. That was evident when he went up for a dunk, was fouled and the Crisler Center crowd held their collective breath before he landed on two feet.
“I'm still going to attack with a lot of force, go up and finish, do what I do,” Livers said. “I know I said I wasn't going to try to dunk, but I definitely tried in the first half and got fouled. I let go of the rim so there was no tragedy.”
Livers said he wasn’t on a minute restriction at all. Instead, Howard told Livers to just tug on his jersey whenever he needed a break.
Livers used that signal with roughly two minutes left when he was feeling tired and sore because “it’s been a minute since my legs have been doing this.” But after a quick breather, he returned and finished out his first full game since the Dec. 14 meeting against Oregon.
And on a day where Michigan snapped a three-game slide at home and four-game slide to Michigan State, the end of Livers’ streak was just as important.
"I'm so happy for him. He worked so hard to get back to this spot with our trainer,” Teske said. “He's put a lot of time and work not just in the gym, but in the pool as well. Those injuries, they can bother people and he took his time with it. I'm proud of him for the way he fought back through that injury. For him to come out in a game like this that we needed was big time."