On Saturday, Caris LeVert exited Crisler Arena on crutches after suffering an apparent foot injury in a win over Northwestern. On Sunday, Michigan confirmed the worst-case outcome: Its talented junior had a broken foot that would require season-ending surgery. And so Monday, the program forged ahead on sheer survival instincts, talking about opportunities created for everyone else and trying to ignore reality:
Sometimes, there just is no next man up.
Sometimes, a team loses a player who does so much, who is so involved and so differently talented than anyone else on the roster, that the hole is simply too vast to fill. It would seem the Wolverines have reached this stage this week. There is no one individual who can replace LeVert, the team’s leader in scoring (14.9), rebounding (4.9), assists (3.7), steals (1.7) and minutes (35.8) per game. And the comprehensiveness of the lanky 6-foot-6 inch guard’s contributions suggest it is unlikely even multiple individuals can compensate.
“Caris took 19 shots (per game), there's 19 shots available," Michigan coach John Beilein told reporters on the Big Ten’s weekly teleconference Monday. "He played 39 minutes, there's 39 minutes available. There's a whole lot of rebounds. He was leading us in every category: steals, assists, everything. There's a whole bunch of assists, a whole bunch of steals waiting for somebody right now. As bad as we feel for Caris, a great opportunity for other young men to grow."
It’s the note Beilein had to sound, but it seems a little off-key. Michigan has been through a version of this before, and surely the coaching staff will use it as handy reference: Mitch McGary was a preseason All-America last year before a back injury relegated him to just a cheerleader role for the bulk of the season. The Wolverines adjusted to make a run to the Elite Eight. But the team had almost an entire season to recalibrate roles; McGary was dealing with foot and ankle issues before the 2013-14 campaign even began, which meant Michigan had to consider Plan Bs for some time. It then rode the swell of future first-round pick Nik Stauskas’ confidence and production deep into March, falling short of the Final Four thanks to the last-second sorcery of Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison.
Neither the time nor talent appears to be available for a similar resolution this season.
LeVert actually wasn’t close to being the most valuable Big Ten player; his usage rate of 25 percent was far behind league leader Terran Petteway of Nebraska (eight nationally at 34.4 percent). Michigan has four other regulars using between 18 and 23 percent of possessions. Still, LeVert’s length and quick hands allowed him to trigger the defense at the top of the 1-3-1 zone, and he had a knack for involving teammates (his assist percentage of 24.8 led the team) while also scoring with high efficiency (53.6 true shooting percentage). Replacing that set of skills is not as simple as plug-and-play, not even if you’re plugging in multiple people.
The more applicable corollary from last season might be Notre Dame’s fate after Jerian Grant missed the second semester for an academic issue. The 6-5 guard was behind everything the Irish did on the offensive end, with a usage rate of 24.6 percent, an assist percentage of 34.6 and a scoring average of 19 points per game at the time of his absence. “You do realize, you hadn’t seen him for five months, he’s really talented, and he gets guys easier shots,” Irish coach Mike Brey said in the fall, when discussing the impact of Grant’s return. “Guys shot it better when they’re on Jerian’s team (in practice), because he finds them and he draws the defense a little more than anybody else.”
Without Grant, Notre Dame still had capable players like guard Eric Atkins and forward Pat Connaughton, much like Michigan can turn to Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton (assuming Walton gets back to full health, as he is also on the unofficial Michigan injured list). But without Grant, the Irish foundered. They lost 12 of 18 games in the ACC, a forgettable, dreary nosedive after their best player was bounced from school. There was simply no substitute for Grant’s all-over production.
Michigan, too, now loses a player with All-America potential and an uncommon collection of abilities. A Big Ten with one elite team and not much separation thereafter might be navigable to some extent. But the Wolverines barely escaped Northwestern at home even with LeVert playing 38 minutes, and the schedule revs up soon: After a trip to struggling Rutgers on Tuesday, Michigan hosts Wisconsin on the weekend. February begins with games at Michigan State, at home against Iowa and then at Indiana.
There is little time to get a plan together before the road gets slick and perilous. And there are fewer and fewer able-bodied individuals to steer the thing without LeVert along for the ride. “We have more injured or sick players than we have healthy players right now," Beilein told reporters Monday.
Caris LeVert is gone, and it’s as big a personnel catastrophe as any team can endure. No one should be surprised if Michigan calls for the next man up, and the search doesn’t end before the season does.