ANN ARBOR, Mich. – As the season winds down, every game is becoming more crucial for the Wolverines, a team on the NCAA bubble with three regular season game remaining on its schedule.
Up next for Michigan (19-9, 9-6 Big Ten) is Northwestern, a team that has the full attention of U-M coach John Beilein, who praised the Wildcats (17-10, 5-9) in his Tuesday press conference.
“We got a real challenge with us with Northwestern,” Beilein said. “This Northwestern team is really skilled.”
By skilled, Beilein is referring to NW’s forward Alex Olah, who averages 10.6 points and a team-high 5.1 rebounds.“They have big man who is extremely skilled,” Beilein said. “A big man who (was) injured (and) is playing a solid 20 minutes per game right now.”
However, it’s the Wildcats guard play that could spell trouble for the Wolverines says Beilein, who noted their backcourt as “exceptional.” Especially senior Tre Demps, who leads NW at 14.9 points per game, while sophomore Bryant McIntosh averages 14.3 points per game, on a Northwestern team that will have a eight day layoff before playing U-M on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Caris LeVert isn’t coming back any time soon, says Beilein, at least not until his star guard says he’s ready to play.
“I do not expect Caris to be able to play,” Beilein said of LeVert. “I just talked to him, he’s not going to be able to practice today. He still has some discomfort. So we should just moving forward plan on, he’s not going to be playing until he’s ready to play again.”
LeVert, who last played sparingly against Purdue early this month, has missed most of the Big Ten season with a lower left leg injury.
“You might ask the question, “why don’t you shut him down?’ He wants to play so much, we’re going to give him every opportunity to play,” Beilein said of LeVert. “It’s his senior year, every opportunity to play right till the end. He’s going to make that decision more than I will.”
Dealing with key injuries to starring players hasn’t been easy for Beilein and his staff. And when asked if this was his toughest season yet, U-M’s headman admitted these past two seasons have been his toughest at Michigan.
“I think the last two have really been a challenge for our whole staff,” Beilein said. “And it’s just the unplanned things. Now you have an injury like Caris, and you expect ‘Ok, worst he’s going to be out 4-6 weeks, maybe?’ Now we’re at eight weeks and he’s not able to comeback. Just like pouring gasoline on the fire.
“So you just have to deal with it. That’s why these positions are well paid. That’s why there is a lot of scrutiny in them, because you got a big decision to make. You got to weather the storm every time and not show weakness. And so that’s what we are trying to do.”