On the afternoon of Friday, March 12, few teams in men’s college basketball looked better than Michigan. The Wolverines, who had just won the Big Ten regular-season title, entered that day ranked second in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings and then delivered a confidence-renewing win over Maryland to open the conference tournament. Senior guard Eli Brooks was healthy after missing one of Michigan’s three losses and leaving early from another. By that point, they had weathered a slew of challenges — Brooks’s injury, a 76-53 loss to Illinois on March 2 and a three-week break in game action because of campus COVID-19 concerns — and emerged looking like a national title contender.
But even 48 hours from Selection Sunday, the road to a championship is still fraught with all too many land mines. After that win against Maryland, Michigan faced perhaps its biggest setback: Senior Isaiah Livers was ruled out with a stress injury in his right foot. The Wolverines lost in the Big Ten semifinals against Ohio State. They still earned a No. 1 seed, but they looked nowhere near as formidable as they did when the weekend began.
And yet, out of nine Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament field, Michigan is the only one left, rolling into the Elite Eight after a 76-58 dismantling of Florida State on Sunday. “We don’t make excuses here at Michigan,” coach Juwan Howard said after the game.
CBS reported Sunday that Livers will miss the rest of the tournament, and Michigan will miss his 13 points and six rebounds per game. Livers was also one of the nation’s 100 best 3-point shooters at 43 percent, and even on a well-rounded team, he was one of the most valuable players, with 3.5 win shares — third behind Franz Wagner’s 4.6 and Hunter Dickinson’s 3.8. In the Wolverines’ first game without Livers, they looked shaky — they trailed Ohio State by 13 with 4:19 left before closing for a 1-point loss — and they’ve had almost no time to adjust since then. But in three NCAA Tournament games, their average offensive efficiency rating is 114.9, up from 112.3 entering the tournament; their average defensive efficiency rating is 95.0, down from 96.3.
The history of the Big Dance is littered with stories of similar teams that saw promising seasons torpedoed by ill-timed injuries. Villanova hasn’t played at the same level as Michigan this season, but the Wildcats were still 16-4 and 11-3 in the Big East when they lost point guard Collin Gillespie to a torn MCL. They lost their regular-season finale, their conference tournament opener and, after comfortable wins against Winthrop and North Texas, their Sweet 16 matchup against Baylor.
In the last NCAA Tournament, in 2019, Auburn raced past North Carolina in the Sweet 16 but lost Chuma Okeke, who finished with 5.5 win shares, to a season-ending knee injury. The Tigers managed to upset Kentucky in their next game but lost to Virginia in the Final Four. In 2018, Virginia won the ACC Tournament and earned the No. 1 overall seed, but De’Andre Hunter (3.7 win shares) had injured his wrist in the tournament final. The Cavaliers played without him in the first round against UMBC; the result was only the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.
In those cases, injuries struck at the worst possible times, but even when teams have more time to make adjustments, they sometimes struggle. In 2010, Purdue was 24-3 when it lost Robbie Hummel (5.5 win shares) to a torn ACL on Feb. 24. The Boilermakers lost two of their last five heading into the NCAA Tournament and fell against Duke in the Sweet 16. And in 2015, Virginia played without Justin Anderson for eight games in the last month of the regular season after starting 21-1. Anderson returned for the postseason, but his team was never the same, losing its second ACC Tournament game and its second NCAA Tournament game.
Oregon in 2017 provided perhaps the best example of a team overcoming a late-season injury to one of its best players. In the conference tournament semifinals — the same round in which Livers played only 15 minutes against Maryland — senior post player Chris Boucher, who had 3.8 win shares, tore his ACL. The Ducks went on to win that game but lost the next day in the final against Arizona. Still, they earned a No. 3 seed and made the Final Four before losing by a point to North Carolina in a national semifinal.
As for Michigan, the Wolverines have re-created Livers’s production as a team. His minutes have gone to Brandon Johns (26 per game in the NCAA Tournament, up from 10 in the regular season), who scored 14 points on Sunday. Livers was the team’s best 3-point shooter, but Brooks, who was shooting 38 percent from deep entering the tournament, went 8-for-15 in the first two games.1 And even without Livers, Michigan’s top-10 defense delivered a lights-out performance against Florida State. The Seminoles scored just 21 points in the first half, committed 14 turnovers and shot 5-for-20 from 3-point range.
After Michigan outlasted LSU in the second round, Howard said, “You can’t fill the void of Isaiah because of what he provides on the floor with his shooting, his length, his leadership, his experience.” But in their first three games, the Wolverines have done all they can do, and FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness model gives them a 62 percent chance of moving on to the Final Four. Even with a senior captain in a walking boot, Michigan inspired Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton to say, “That’s a team that really, really knows who they are.”
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