SAN ANTONIO — He kept his eyes open and his mouth shut. From New York and back, Wichita and back, Los Angeles and back, from Ann Arbor to Texas, Isaiah Livers watched Michigan’s upperclassmen deftly navigate the March on the Alamo, taking careful mental notes, picking off little pieces here and there.
“From Duncan [Robinson], [I took] maturity,” Livers, the Wolverines freshman forward, told Land of 10 during the Final Four.
“Muhammad [Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman], just learning how to lead by example. Muhammad does this great [job of] leading by example without putting it into words.
“Jaaron [Simmons], he just believes in our team. Even though he’s not on the court, he just believes in our team.”
He pondered that one for a second.
“The passion for the game,” Livers said of Moe Wagner, the Michigan star who may soon be casting his lot in the NBA draft. “I’ve never met anybody as passionate as him play basketball.”
If there’s a silver lining to the cloud that was the 2018 NCAA Tournament national title game, it’s that the runners-up in the Big Dance are actually a lot younger than you think. Of the 17 players on coach John Beilein’s roster, 11 are either sophomores are freshmen. Those sophomores and freshmen saw 10 win-or-go-home games in one postseason. Most college basketball players don’t see 10 win-or-go-home spring tilts over the course of four seasons.
“Oh, yeah, I’m definitely going to be considered a veteran,” laughed Livers, who started all 10 postseason contests and averaged 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds over his first Michigan campaign. “I’m going to take a lot of stuff that Muhammad, Jaaron and Duncan, all of them used. I’m definitely going to keep passing it down, try to keep teaching them the best I can.”
‘We know what it takes to get here and we know that feeling when you get here. So I think that’s just going to be more motivation for us to get back to that feeling.’
— Michigan freshman forward C.J. Baird
Michigan’s Drip Boys — the swag club co-founded by Livers’ roommate, Jordan Poole, the Wolverines’ Captain Clutch — were the kids in the locker room this month, the fun bunch. The ones who huddled and laughed and hammed it up while the NCAA and network television types were whisking the upperclassmen away in golf carts.
In a few months, with no Abdur-Rahkman, no Robinson, and maybe no Moe, they well could be the old men in the room. A bunch of greybeards.
Which is, you know, less fun.
“You’ve got to just step up when your name is called,” said sophomore center Jon Teske, who averaged 3.2 points and 2.9 boards off the bench this postseason. “And I think I’ll be ready. But, definitely, we have a great supporting cast. And I think all us young guys will be ready.”
More silver lining: All the young kids had a moment along this journey, somewhere. Livers kept the line moving with 9 points against a feisty Iowa squad at Madison Square Garden. Teske dropped 14 on Purdue to ensure a second straight Big Ten Tournament crown. Freshman point guard Eli Brooks helped get a sluggish offense off the mat against Montana. And Poole, well …
— Alejandro Zúñiga (@ByAZuniga) March 18, 2018
“I think one of the best parts about it — you’ll notice [against Loyola-Chicago], Coach Beilein got everybody in the game,” noted freshman forward C.J. Baird, another of those unlikely March heroes. “Austin Davis. Ibi Watson. They’ll come off the bench and they can contribute in a meaningful game now. So having that experience for next year is good. As well, with them watching Muhammad, Duncan and Jaaron, Moe, and all of them who have played a lot, watching them and knowing how to win is really good and helps us in the future.”
Tough act to follow, though.
Fun act, granted.
“It’s kind of a blessing to be a part of this, but it also really helps in the future,” Baird said. “Because we know what it takes to get here and we know that feeling when you get here. So I think that’s just going to be more motivation for us to get back to that feeling.
“When you feel happy, you want to get back to it. So you have to make sure you know how to do it and make sure to work hard for it.”
Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson and Simmons and Wagner showed the Drip Boys how to scale that mountain, where to put the ropes. Now it’s their turn to navigate the climb.
“We’ve got a bunch of freshmen coming in next year, so I’m basically going to be telling them, ‘If you guys want to get back here, here’s the formula,’” Livers said. “It’s passed down from Duncan and Muhammad — here’s the formula to try to get back here.”