Niyo: LeVert recalls journey from success to injuries

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It wasn’t supposed to start like that, either.

So rather than searching for a rewind button, trying to turn back the clock, or simply wondering what might have been, Michigan’s Caris LeVert would prefer to look ahead.

But that’s no easy task at the moment, what with LeVert pulling the plug this week on his own college basketball career, four days before he’ll be honored for it on Senior Night at Crisler Center and two or three years removed from the best moments in it.

“You can’t really look back on the past,” LeVert said Wednesday, a bit wistfully, as he was asked to do exactly that, reflecting on a four-year run in Ann Arbor that began at a breakneck pace but now ends with a lamentable limp.

LeVert went to the Final Four as a freshman, and nearly won it all. He almost made it back as a sophomore, winning a Big Ten championship along the way. But for this erstwhile All-America candidate, the last two seasons were mired in disappointment, derailed by foot and ankle injuries that ultimately forced his hand this week, with the Wolverines’ season hanging in the balance and his own NBA draft prospects in limbo.

“Pretty tough,” was how the 21-year-old senior from Columbus, Ohio, described it all Wednesday, speaking publicly for only the second time since rolling his ankle in Michigan’s Big Ten opener Dec. 30 at Illinois. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound guard has missed 15 of 16 games since, with a brief cameo against Purdue on Feb. 13 serving as his final appearance in a Michigan uniform.

‘Bittersweet’ farewell

The team made that official Tuesday, the day before LeVert and fellow senior Spike Albrecht — his season ended in December due to lingering problems from recent hip surgeries — met with the media to discuss Saturday’s “bittersweet” home farewell.

It’s a big game for coach John Beilein’s team, as Michigan may need a win over Iowa to secure an NCAA Tournament berth. But it’s another game they’ll play without their best player, who missed the last 14 games of last season due to injury as well and never really got a chance to be the star many expected him to be.

“I just couldn’t really help the team the way that the team needed, the way that I wanted to help the team,” said LeVert, who was leading the Wolverines in scoring, rebounds and assists. “Coach Beilein really thought it was best, and I thought it was best. I really wanted to play. It was a real tough decision. But we both thought it was best to shut it down. … Our time was definitely running out.”

That’s a reality every college athlete faces, of course. Time always runs out. It’s just that most players get to finish on their own terms, or at least something that resembles it.

Not so for LeVert and Albrecht, two-fifths of the “Fresh Five” freshman class that helped spark Michigan’s magical run to the national championship game in 2013.

“It feels like last week,” LeVert said Wednesday. “It all goes by really fast. But I’m really grateful for those experiences we had.”

A year later, LeVert and Albrecht were integral parts of a team that came within a basket of a return trip to the Final Four, even without fellow sophomore Mitch McGary, who was sidelined by a back injury. (“It’s crazy to think that all three of us kind of ended with injuries,” LeVert told me Wednesday.)

A late three-pointer by Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison over the outstretched arms of LeVert was the difference that day in Indianapolis. But as crushing as that Elite Eight defeat was, it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the fun. Not in the middle of their careers.

‘A walk in the park’

“My first two years I thought this was just what college basketball was like,” said Albrecht, whose one shining moment — shooting the lights out in the first half of the NCAA title game in 2013 — won’t soon be forgotten. “I thought it was just a walk in the park. Not much adversity, and everything is going great when you’re winning. But then last year and this year were a little bit of a reality check.”

And when reality hits like this — Albrecht’s debilitating hip pain, LeVert’s fractured foot, and so on — “it tests your patience and your faith,” LeVert said, “and I think I’ve really grown a lot in those two areas.”

He says his mother, Kim, probably took the news harder than anyone. And while he admits this decision has weighed on his mind for some time, he know it’s a load off Beilein’s mind now.

“I haven’t had to answer some of the tough questions he has,” LeVert said.

“You know, everything happens for a reason,” he added. “You just have to find the good in every situation. You don’t really know that in the moment. But I probably will look back at this one day and know why it happened, for sure.”

In the meantime, LeVert says he’ll continue to keep it to himself exactly what happened with this most recent injury, one that apparently was improving until “a little mishap” in his return against Purdue ratcheted up the pain and ultimately rearranged the priorities, both for LeVert and the coaching staff.

Prepping for Combine

LeVert says surgery was discussed earlier this winter, but also dismissed. And the plan now is to shut it down again for a couple of weeks, then begin training for the NBA draft combine in mid-May.

“I don’t think I’ll have to have any procedure done,” said LeVert, a smooth-shooting wing who added 40 pounds to his frame and plenty of explosion to his game while at Michigan. “Hopefully I’ll be ready.”

A year ago, he decided he wasn’t ready yet. Now, he has no choice but to be if he still hopes to be a first-round pick. Asked Wednesday how much that thinking entered his decision to give up the ghost this spring, LeVert shook his head.

“I think it played a small role,” he said. “I could’ve gone to the NBA last year. But I really wanted to come back, get my degree and win some games in college first. But that wasn’t what God had on the table for us. So we just had to move on.”