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.