From under-recruited to team leader, Caris LeVert has seen it all at Michigan

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source: AP
Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

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Caris LeVert’s 2013-14 season ended just like the rest of his Michigan teammates: with a 75-72 loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. But unlike much of last season’s Wolverines rotation, LeVert is back at Michigan for his junior season.

Jordan Morgan graduated, Jon Horford transferred to Florida and Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas all entered the 2014 NBA Draft. As a result that leaves the junior, LeVert, and last season’s starting point guard, sophomore Derrick Walton Jr., as the vital pieces for Michigan this season.

After being passed over by numerous Division I programs and nearly ending up at Ohio during his high school career, LeVert has had a long and strange journey to become the junior leader and All-American candidate of a storied Big Ten program.

Early in his senior year of high school, LeVert was getting some college interest from small Division I schools like Alabama State and Prairie View A&M before an Ohio assistant coach saw him and realized a talented local player had no scholarship offers. From there, Ohio’s entire staff, led by former head coach and current Illinois coach John Groce, saw LeVert play, offered the Pickerington, Ohio native a scholarship, and the then-6-foot-4 LeVert committed to be a Bobcat after being recruited more by Groce and his staff.

It would be only months later that Ohio would lose a head coach and a future star to the Big Ten.

After Groce took the Illinois job, LeVert was given a release from his Letter of Intent that forced him to choose a new school outside of the MAC. Dayton quickly jumped in and offered a scholarship and received a visit while Michigan, Purdue and Xavier would call and check on LeVert. LeVert ended up taking visits to both Purdue and Michigan, but the Wolverines ultimately won out.

In fact, it was LeVert asking the Michigan coaching staff if he had the opportunity to play in Ann Arbor during his visit to campus.

“When they were meeting with Caris he told the coaching staff, ‘If it is okay with you, if you want me, I would love to come to Michigan’,” LeVert’s high school coach, Jerry Francis, told Andre Barthwell of Scout.com. “That’s just the type of kid he is.”

Head coach John Beilein was probably thrilled that LeVert asked to play for Michigan because the wing has been thriving under his watch ever since. The junior has now grown to nearly 6-foot-7, 200 pounds, after entering college as a skinny 175 pounds. Last season, LeVert was one of college basketball’s biggest breakout stars averaging 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game on 43 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Now with all of that star power from last season having left Ann Arbor, LeVert has to take on a new leadership role that he hasn’t faced at the college level before.

“I’m already a junior and it seems like just yesterday I was a young freshman here,” LeVert said at Big Ten media day last month. “Now the team only has me, Spike and Max from that team now so, it’s definitely a new look for us.”

MORE: Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin is the class of the Big Ten

Embracing the leadership role might not be as naturally easy for LeVert as the hard work it took for him to be one of the Big Ten’s best players, but Beilein said that his junior guard’s work ethic sets enough of a positive tone for Michigan’s young team to still make a difference.

“There’s guys that if they’re not comfortable being vocal they may not help,” Beilein said of LeVert’s leadership at Big Ten media day. “And I wouldn’t say he’s not comfortable but he’s not going to be like the Zack Novak like you’ve got to really jump in somebody’s face, which Zack was very happy to do several times.

“But you can still get it across. His effort every day and his attitude of being coachable and his effort every day speaks volumes for who he is. And he’s always been that way but now as one of the veteran players, our guys are watching him and that’s where I want to get this program to.”

Vocal leadership might not be LeVert’s forte, but he has a major advantage that many star players don’t have with incoming freshmen: he’s entirely relatable to Michigan’s seven new freshmen. LeVert entered the university just like this new core group at Michigan, as a physically unprepared system recruit with a chip on his shoulder. Because he was under-recruited and in the same position as many of the current Michigan freshmen, now Beilein hopes those players can follow in LeVert’s model and find success of their own.

LeVert has blazed an unlikely path to be a Big Ten star, and after the junior likely becomes a NBA Draft pick, Beilein is hoping to find another LeVert.

If Michigan wants to replace all that they’ve lost from last season and move forward quickly, the program will count on LeVert not only to produce on the floor, but to show others the way it’s done this season.

Caris LeVert once asked the Michigan coaching staff if he could play basketball for them. Now, those same Michigan coaches will ask LeVert to lead the Wolverines as their best player a little over two years later.

No. 6 Gonzaga holds off run to beat No. 15 Arizona, 84-80

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Corey Kispert scored 18 points, Filip Petrusev added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga withstood No. 15 Arizona’s furious late rally for an 84-80 win on Saturday night.

The Zags (11-1) fought through a tense first half and shut down Arizona during two second-half runs to go up 80-65 with 2:12 left.

After struggling most of the night, Arizona (10-2) went on a 15-1 to pull within two, but Gonzaga’s Ryan Woolridge sealed it by hitting two free throws with 1.7 seconds left.

Gonzaga played a crisp offensive game, repeatedly beating the Wildcats with ball screens, and cleaned up the defensive glass in the second half after giving up a rash of second-chance points in the first.

The Zags also shut down Arizona star freshman Nico Mannion, who had seven points on 3-for-20 shooting, including 1 for 10 on 3-point attempts.

Joel Ayayi added 15 points as Gonzaga won its 10th straight road game to extend the nation’s longest active streak.

Gonzaga did it with Killian Tillie in foul trouble most of the night before he limped off to the locker room with about seven minutes left.

The Wildcats started strong with a boost from a boisterous McKale Center crowd and Zeke Nnaji’s early energy.

After that, Arizona struggled from the perimeter and had numerous defensive breakdowns in the second half as Gonzaga pulled away, prompting coach Sean Miller to repeatedly point to his assistants and yell “Get him out of there!”

The Wildcats finally found some cohesiveness at both ends, getting the fans out of their seats during the big late run before falling short.

Nnaji had 14 points and 17 rebounds, and Josh Green added 17 points for Arizona, which shot 8 for 30 from 3-point range.

Two of the West’s best programs agreed to their latest home-and-home series, playing in the desert this year before heading to Spokane next season.

Arizona, led by its fabulous freshman trio, rolled through its early 2019-20 schedule, the only loss coming on Dec. 7 when a big second-half comeback came up short against No. 11 Baylor.

Gonzaga had a similar resume heading into Saturday night’s showdown, losing only to No. 5 Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game.

Revved up by a the crowd, the Wildcats crushed the Zags on the glass early — a huge point of emphasis by Miller against Gonzaga’s big front line. Arizona had nine offensive rebounds in the first eight minutes to build a nine-point lead and make up for an 0-for-7 start from 3-point range.

The Bulldogs clawed their way back as the Wildcats continued to clank from the perimeter — 1 for 15 from 3 — and led 35-34 at halftime. Arizona had 13 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds in the first half.

Gonzaga cleaned up its defensive glass issues to open the second half and used a 12-0 run to go up 54-45. The Zags continued to take advantage of Arizona’s defensive miscues and went on an 8-0 run to push the lead to 69-55.

The Wildcats had one more run left, but ran out of time.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga withstood a massive run in one of college basketball’s toughest environments to win a huge road game.

Arizona put itself in a tough spot due to defensive breakdowns and poor perimeter shooting, falling just short despite its big run.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga hosts No. 17 North Carolina on Wednesday.

Arizona plays St. John’s next Saturday in San Francisco.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Memphis’ validation, Gonzaga’s statement, Payton Pritchard’s dominance

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1. MEMPHIS MADE ME CHANGE MY MIND ON THEM

I think it’s probably hyperbolic to say that Memphis had the most impressive win of the season on Saturday.

Stephen F. Austin won in Cameron Indoor. Evansville won in Rupp. Ohio State won in the Dean Dome by 25 points. There have been some absolutely bonkers things happening in college basketball this season, and included among them have been some truly terrific wins.

What I will say is that there has not been a result that has changed my opinion more about the winning team than the win that No. 13 Memphis just landed in Knoxville on Saturday against No. 19 Tennessee.

The reason I say that is because of everything that went wrong leading up to and during this game.

Let’s start with the obvious. Not only were the Tigers playing without James Wiseman, who might be the best player in the country this year, but they were without another starter – and their best shooter – in Lester Quinones. They started four freshmen playing in a rivalry game on the road for the first time against a top 20 team, and they got sucked into play that team’s pace. They missed 13 of their first 14 shots, trailed by 12 points in the first half and, with nine minutes left before the break, had managed to score all of five points.

Everything about the way this game played out makes me think Memphis should have lost by 20.

And they won.

Maybe these freshmen are better than we thought they would be?

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD IS HAVING A SEASON DESERVING OF FIRST-TEAM ALL-AMERICA

The most impressive performance by a player on Saturday was quite possibly the first game of the night. Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard scored 15 in the final 4:14 of regulation and overtime as the No. 10 Ducks found a way to survive a thrilling comeback by No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor, 71-70.

He finished with 23 points and four assists. He had 15 of Oregon’s final 17 points. He did all of that while being defended by one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball in Zavier Simpson. It’s not the first time that he has taken a game over down the stretch to lead Oregon to a win.

Entering Saturday, Pritchard was averaging 18.8 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 boards for a team that now has wins over Memphis, Seton Hall, Houston and at Michigan. This is not the first time that he’s made big plays late to win a game (Memphis) or to get his team to overtime (Gonzaga). He’s going to be the guy that carries this Oregon team as far as they go, and given what he’s proven that he can do, I think that’ll be pretty far.

I’m not sure who the Player of the Year favorite would be as of today, but I know for a fact that there is no way to talk about who it should be without including Pritchard in that conversation.

3. FRANZ WAGNER AND BRANDON JOHNS WAKING UP MATTERS

On a night where Zavier Simpson struggled, Jon Teske forgot to show up and Isaiah Livers was non-existent outside of a six-minute heater at the start of the second half, the Wolverines got massive production from a couple of guys that haven’t shown the ability to do it just yet.

Wagner was Michigan’s leading scorer on Saturday. He finished with 21 points, he hit four threes and he made a number of plays down the stretch that kept Michigan from getting run. This was the guy that the Wolverines thought they were getting when Wagner committed. He was terrific.

Johns’ numbers are not as impressive, but his impact was just as important. He finished with eight points, nine boards, two assists and two blocks – solid production from a five coming off the bench – but it was the fact that he allowed Michigan to play small without losing any of their defensive mettle. Johns is a former top 50 recruit, a burly, 6-foot-8 forward with tantalizing athleticism, but he has struggled finding the confidence to allow him to tap into that potential.

We’ve seen it in flashes. This was more than that.

4. GONZAGA SHOULD BE A TOP THREE TEAM COME MONDAY

The Zags made a statement on Saturday night.

I don’t know how many of you stayed up to watch a game that tipped off after 10 p.m. on the east coast, but if you did, you saw the Zags put a whooping on the Wildcats. Arizona jumped out to a 19-10 lead, but Gonzaga slowly chipped away, take the lead into halftime and them pulled away in the second half. It was a slow, methodical dismantling — one that probably should have ended with the Zags winning by significantly more than the 84-80 final that we saw.

You might not realize this, but Gonzaga probably has the best resume in college basketball outside of Columbus, Ohio. They beat Oregon on a neutral floor. They won at Washington. They won at Arizona. They won at Texas A&M by 30. Their only loss came against Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis. And they’re doing all of this while dealing with a banged up Killian Tillie.

Don’t take for granted just how good and consistent this program has become. On Monday, they should be the No. 3 team in college basketball, if the AP pollsters get this right. That’s despite the fact that they lost their top four players from last season – three of whom were early entries, two of which were unexpected – and they haven’t skipped a beat.

That program is a machine.

5. THE TALKING POINT SHOULD BE RUTGERS, BUT IT’S GOING TO BE MYLES POWELL

No. 22 Seton Hall went into the RAC on Saturday and got absolutely manhandled. Rutgers jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never looked back. Seton Hall never cut the lead back to single digits, and coming just a few days after the Scarlet Knights beat up on Wisconsin in that same building, what we should be talking about is that this team looks to be pretty good, that Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker can really play, that Steve Pikiell can really coach and that they would be a tournament team if they still had Eugene Omoruyi.

But that’s not what anyone is going to be talking about.

Because Myles Powell, Seton Hall’s All-American scoring guard, played just 15 minutes after suffering a nasty concussion. He didn’t see the floor after halftime and asked head coach Kevin Willard “why are we practicing at Rutgers?” during the game. Not only is that a scary injury, but it’s one that could end up having ramifications for the Big East as a whole.

Seton Hall played No. 5 Maryland at home on Thursday. There is no word on whether or not Powell will suit up.

6. XAVIER’S LOSS CAPPED AN UNDERWHELMING DAY FOR THE BIG EAST

It was hardly a banner day for No. 23 Xavier. They went on the road to Winston-Salem and lost to a Wake Forest team that just about everyone has given up on. Chaundree Brown had 26 points and Brandon Childress chipped in with 22 as the Musketeers nearly stole the came at the end. Paul Scruggs finished with 30 points in the loss, and Quentin Goodin missed a pretty good look at a three at the buzzer that would have given Xavier a win. Instead, they lost 80-78.

And head coach Travis Steele was not happy about it.

“We lost because of the first 20 minutes,” he said after the game. “The first 20 minutes we were complete bull-crap,” adding that, “We need an alpha dog to emerge. A leader. We need a guy to step up when we’re at a low point, when we need to come together. Not just from a scoring perspective, but on both ends. I believe we have that guy, but I’ve got to find him.”

7. JARRON CUMBERLAND MIGHT HAVE GIVEN UP ON THE SEASON

Cumberland entered the season as an All-American candidate and the biggest reason why Cincinnati fans were bullish this year.

Since then, a pair of mysterious injuries and a feud with head coach John Brannen has torpedoed the year. It came to a head on Saturday night. Colgate tied the game at Cincinnati with less than ten seconds left. Cumberland took the in-bounds pass and fired up a shot from the other side of half court with more than five seconds left on the clock. Colgate drew a foul on the rebound, hit a free throw and won.

This is incredible:

I would love to know what Cumberland was thinking in this situation. Did he hear someone yelling shoot from the bench? Did he hear the Colgate bench counting down the clock? Did he forget to put his contacts in so that a five on the clock above the basketball looked like a zero?

We might never know.

But at this point, does it even matter?

8. KENTUCKY SHOULD CONSIDER STARTING KEION BROOKS

At what point do we start asking whether or not E.J. Montgomery is the answer for No. 8 Kentucky at the four?

In theory, he makes the most sense. He’s the best option offensively. He’s probably the most skilled big that the Wildcats have on the roster. He’s big enough to provide some rim protection and he’s enough of a threat on the perimeter tp force defenses to have to make a decision when he’s beyond the arc.

But it just hasn’t worked against good teams, and his scoreless performance against Georgia Tech stood out.

Freshman Keion Brooks played 26 minutes on Saturday. He had 10 points, four boards, a block and a steal. He looked more energetic. He looked like a better fit defensively. And this was on the heels of scoring 15 points in 16 minutes against Fairleigh Dickinson.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, but I do think that Coach Cal has a decision he’s going to need to make with games coming up against Utah, Ohio State and Louisville.

9. BYU IS DANGEROUS

I know that they lost, 68-64, on Saturday, but I still think Utah State is probably a better team than BYU, especially once Neemias Queta gets back up to full speed.

That said, I think that BYU is just as, if not more dangerous, than the Aggies, especially in the month of March.

The Cougars have now won at Houston and beaten UCLA and Virginia Tech in Maui in addition to this win over Utah State. They beat both UNLV and Nevada by 33 points. They shooting better than 40 percent from three, and that’s while taking more than 44 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. Oh, and they happen to have an NBA player at the five in Yoeli Childs.

The Cougars are going to need to land a win or two against Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga if they want to be in the mix for an at-large bid, but I do think that they have put themselves in a position where that is very much a possibility.

10. HOW MANY GAMES WILL ANTHONY EDWARDS PLAY THAT MATTER?

Anthony Edwards is an unbelievable talent and, as he showed when he dropped 33 points on Michigan State in one half out in Maui, one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch.

But how many games is he going to play this season that actually matter?

Did you know that the potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft was playing on Saturday night? Did you know that he had 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting in a sleepy performance as his Georgia team lost by 20 at Arizona State?

Because they did.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim rips former Georgetown guard James Akinjo

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I aspire to reach the level of IDGAF that Jim Boeheim lives his life at.

On Saturday afternoon, after becoming the victim of Georgetown’s third straight win since seeing James Akinjo and Josh LeBlanc transfer out of the program, Boeheim gave his take on how and why the Hoyas have improved.

And, as you might expect, it’s brutally honest.

“They got rid of a guy that wouldn’t pass the ball to anybody and just shot it every time, and that’s why they’re good now,” Boeheim said of Akinjo. “Patrick [Ewing] can’t say that but I can. He lost two games for them by himself.”

Akinjo and LeBlanc transferred out of the program on Dec. 2nd. On Friday, Myron Gardner and Galen Alexander followed those two out the door. Prior to Saturday’s win, Georgetown had won at SMU and at Oklahoma State since Akinjo left.

Akinjo was averaging 13.4 points and 4.4 assists. In the three games since he left, McClung is averaging 26.3 points and 3.7 assists.

“They’ve got a really good point guard [Mac McClung], he’s getting people the ball, and he’s settled into his position where he gets his shots and makes them,” Boeheim said. “They have good inside guys, they have good shooters, I think they have a really good team. I think, by far, this is the best team we’ve seen from Georgetown the last few years.”

Myles Powell suffers concussion as Rutgers blows out No. 22 Seton Hall

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Seton Hall star Myles Powell sat out the second half with a head injury, and Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. had 18 points and six rebounds to help the Scarlet Knights beat the No. 22 Pirates 68-48 on Saturday in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.

Powell did not return to the Seton Hall bench in the second half.

“He has a pretty bad concussion,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “He got whacked. He took the charge and whacked his head on the floor and then him and Tyrese ran into each other. He asked me during the game, ‘Why are we practicing at Rutgers?’

“I didn’t see him get hit by Tyrese and I kind of looked at him because I was wondering what the heck he was doing out there. We sat down in the timeout and his eyes kind of rolled into the back of his head. It just hit him with a wave.”

Sixth in the country at 22.9 points per game, Powell didn’t score his first points until nearly 10 minutes into the game after six misses and a couple missed free throws. He finished with six points on 3-of-9 shooting, missing four 3-pointers. The loss came on the heels of Sandro Mamukelashvili’s fractured wrist at Iowa State.

Harper won the Joe Calabrese Award — named in honor of the late journalist who covered the rivalry for 38 years — as the most valuable player. He had two early alley-oops dunks. Akwasi Yeboah added 14 points and seven rebounds for Rutgers (8-3).

Rutgers led 14-0 start before Seton Hall’s Anthony Nelson banked a 3-pointer. Rutgers pushed the advantage to 21 in the half and led 36-23 at the break. Rutgers led by 22 in the second half.

Quincy McKnight led Seton Hall (6-4) with 11 points. They have lost two in a row.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: The Pirates struggled in their first full game without big-man Mamukelashvili and will likely fall out of the Top 25 after coming in the season ranked No. 12.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights finished a gauntlet four-game stretch 2-2. After coming into the season with the highest expectations in over a decade, they look like a team that can make the postseason for the first time since 2006, when they made the NIT. Rutgers holds the longest active streak for Power Five team not making the NCAA Tournament, with the last appearance in 1991.

SELL OUT

With the game selling out within hours of the tickets being released, the 8,329 packed inside the RAC made for the largest crowd at the Louis Brown Athletic Center since Feb. 23, 2002, when Rutgers beat Seton Hall 66-60.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: Host No. 4 Maryland on Thursday.

Rutgers: Host Lafayette on Sunday.

Brown’s 26 points leads Wake Forest past No. 23 Xavier

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Chaundee Brown scored 26 points, Brandon Childress added 22 and Wake Forest beat No. 23 Xavier 80-78 on Saturday in the Musketeers’ first game this season on an opponent’s home court.

Xavier (9-2), which trailed the entire second half, had a chance to win in the final seconds, but Quentin Goodin’s 3-point attempt bounced off the rim as time expired.

Wake Forest (6-5) led by 13 points in the second half. But Childress missed the first of two free-throws attempts to give the Musketeers a final shot for a win.

Wake Forest won despite playing without 7-footer Olivier Sarr, who averaged 15 points and 10.9 rebounds off the bench in the previous seven games. Sarr is in concussion protocol after suffering a blow to the head in the Deacons’ Dec. 7 game against N.C. State.

Paul Scruggs scored 30 points for Xavier. Naji Marshall added 16 before fouling out with 3:45 remaining.

The Deacons never trailed after Ody Oguama’s basket put the ahead with 3:57 left in the first half, triggering a 14-4 run that gave Wake Forest a 39-30 halftime lead.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers failed their first road test of the season, but almost pulled out a victory in a game in which they trailed for all but a few minutes.

Wake Forest: The Deacons picked up some needed momentum after losing their previous three, winning without Sarr. They have a week to recover before playing region rival North Carolina A&T.

UP NEXT:

Xavier: Host Western Carolina on Wednesday night.

Wake Forest: Host N.C. A&T next Saturday.