Isaiah Livers' stress fracture a gut punch to Michigan basketball's NCAA Tournament chances
On March 4, shortly after he and his team celebrated Michigan's first Big Ten title since 2013-14, Isaiah Livers spoke about what he hoped would come next.
“I got my outright (conference title), we’re going to go win the Big Ten championship, have a March Madness run, fingers crossed, and go get that natty,” Livers said that night.
The Wolverines still have the NCAA tournament ahead of them and could certainly win it all. But they'll have to move forward with Livers on the sideline.
The senior forward was dealt devastating news when a MRI after Michigan's win over Maryland on Friday revealed a stress fracture in his right foot. Livers watched Saturday's 68-67 loss to Ohio State from the bench with his foot in a protective walking boot.
After Saturday's game, he told reporters that he did not know if he would be able to return for the NCAA Tournament — and that the thought of him having played his final game at Michigan has crossed his mind.
“That was the instant thought I had,” Livers said. “Very emotional evening yesterday for me and my family, my teammates, my brothers, because it was — you could just kinda tell and I can tell by just walking on it right now. That thought did cross my mind.
“But you never know. This world is full of possibilities. You never know, I could be back out there, I don’t want people to write me off yet. Still gonna rehab and work my butt off to get back with this team because I know we’re going to make a run and I’m gonna be there for it.”
According to Livers, he initially noticed the injury during Michigan's win at Maryland on New Year's Eve before “it lingered on a little bit.” He then aggravated it during Friday's win over the Terrapins, which explained why he played just 15 minutes and did not return after the 14:42 mark of the second half.
“It’s something that builds up over time, the doctor was explaining,” Livers said. “It’s just one of those things, he said it’s one of those rare kind of injuries, especially on the outside on your toe/foot. When he told me that, it was just like, ‘I couldn’t have done anything about it.’
“Like I said before, I’ve never had a stress fracture. I didn’t know the feeling. If I’d have known the feeling I’d have sat my butt down. But you can’t go back and do anything about it, all I can do right now is be a leader and be the leader that this team needs.”
As Michigan learned last season when Livers missed 10 games with a series of injuries, it is extremely hard to replicate his production. As a senior, Livers has only gotten better and was a consensus second team All-Big Ten selection; he is currently the team's second-leading scorer with 13.1 points, averages 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists and is shooting 43.1% on roughly five 3-point attempts per game.
In Saturday's game against the Buckeyes, it was clear that Michigan missed Livers. While Brandon Johns started in place of Livers and played well, with seven points, eight rebounds and two assists, the Wolverines shot just 31.6% from 3 and suffered several droughts.
Michigan won the Big Ten and put itself in position to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament because of its elite starting lineup. With that group on the floor, the Wolverines scored 1.13 points per possession and allowed just 0.81 points per possession, according to Hoop Lens. Unlike other teams that may rely heavily upon one or two individual stars, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts for the Wolverines.
Now, an integral member of the starting lineup is out — and there isn't much time to find an answer.
Entering Saturday, Michigan's new starting lineup had played together for just two offensive and defensive possessions. The once-steady rotation is now askew, which means the Wolverines must dig deeper into the bench. Each individual player must contribute that much more to collectively make up for Livers' absence.
“We're all collectively going to do our part,” said coach Juwan Howard. “Me as a coach, every player, all hands on deck. You can’t just name one guy who’s going to step in and fill the shoes. It doesn’t work that way.”
Can Michigan still make a postseason run without Livers? Although dejected by his teammate's injury, Hunter Dickinson remained confident.
“I think I’d be lying if not every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will win the national championship,” Dickinson said.
But there's no question that the path forward is significantly tougher.
And it won't get any easier for Livers to deal with the possibility of spending the rest of his college career on the bench.
“It was awful, honestly,” Livers said. “It just sucked. I kinda felt like Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, how their season got shortened last year around this time. You just hate to see it.”