Niyo: Livers injury deals a devastating blow to Michigan’s NCAA Tournament hopes

The No. 1 seed Wolverines will likely have to navigate the Big Dance…

Niyo: Livers injury deals a devastating blow to Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes 1

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

Niyo: Livers injury deals a devastating blow to Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes 2

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Michigan’s Isaiah Livers suspects stress fracture may have been developing for weeks

Wolverines senior forward says he’s dealing with foot issues for the last four of five games and reaggravated injury in Thursday’s win over Maryland.

The Detroit News

Indianapolis — The pain left him unable to play.

But the news, and the diagnosis, well, that left Isaiah Livers speechless, really.

A stress fracture in his right foot likely spells the end of Livers’ season, and probably his college career at Michigan as well, though nothing is certain at this point, barely 24 hours after an MRI confirmed everyone’s worst fears Friday night.

And Saturday, after the Wolverines’ late rally came up short in a 68-67 Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to Ohio State, Livers tried his best to explain an emotional fog that still hadn’t completely cleared.

It wasn’t easy, though.

How could it be, after learning the nagging discomfort he’d dealt with in his foot for weeks was now something much more uncomfortable than he’d realized? Something serious enough to keep him on the sidelines now, just when everything he’d worked so hard for was right there in front of him.

“It was awful, honestly,” Livers said of hearing the news that Michigan would formally announce in a news release Saturday morning, throwing a wet blank on the Wolverines’ once-smoldering national championship hopes.

And as he tried to process what it all meant in that moment Friday, shortly after Michigan’s raucous quarterfinal win over Maryland, the phone rang. It was his head coach, Juwan Howard, who’d just gotten word of the diagnosis himself.

“Once I got the news, he was the first person I talked to on the phone,” Livers said. “And it says a lot about his character: He was there for me, he understood. And it was just comforting. I had no words. But he did all the talking for me, so I didn’t have to speak.”

A day later, Livers, the Wolverines’ co-captain and unquestioned leader, was still searching for the right words. But he couldn’t help thinking about how surreal this was, finding out that his season might be over on March 12, the same date that Michigan was pulled off the court in Indianapolis a year ago as the Big Ten tournament — and ultimately the NCAA tournament — was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Now he knew how Xavier Simpson and Jon Teske felt as the Wolverines’ senior leaders last season, having that chance to write their own final chapter ripped away in an instant.

Shared pain

“To find out that type of news, it hurts,” Howard said after Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes. “And I’m hurting for him.”

But the most difficult part now, for everyone, is the realization that only time will heal what’s hurting Livers. And that, more than likely, there simply isn’t enough time left in this season for him to get back on the court.

Stress fractures typically take 6-8 weeks to fully heal, though the full extent of Livers’ injury isn’t known at this point. He’s in a walking boot now, and there may be ways to help accelerate the recovery — ultrasound bone growth stimulators or other rehab treatments — while the team remains here in a downtown hotel in Indianapolis, preparing for next week’s NCAA Tournament opener.

“This world is full of possibilities, you never know: I could be back out there,” Livers said hopefully. “I don’t want people to write me off yet. I’m still gonna rehab and work my butt off to get back for this team, because I know we’re gonna make a run. And I want to be there for it.”

Livers said his foot first started bothering him a couple of months ago, during Michigan’s win at Maryland on New Year’s Eve, though he didn’t think much of it at the time. It lingered a bit, then mostly went away. Until the last couple weeks, that is, when the soreness returned and began to affect his play as Michigan played five games in 11 days to end the Big Ten regular season.

Then came Friday’s Big Ten tourney opener, and a sequence midway through the first half against Maryland, when Livers says he reaggravated his foot injury with an awkward misstep defending in transition. He came up limping slightly, went to the sideline and only played a couple more shifts before leaving the game for good early in the second half.

Still, Livers wasn’t completely prepared for the news he got later that night.

Niyo: Livers injury deals a devastating blow to Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes 3


Michigan’s Isaiah Livers on thought his college career was over

Wolverines senior forward talks of how coach Juwan Howard comforted him after he initially learned that he had a stress fracture.

The Detroit News

“I’ve never had a stress fracture,” Livers said. “I didn’t know the feeling. If I’d have known the feeling, I would’ve sat my butt down. But you can’t go back and do anything about it. All I can do now is be a leader. Be the leader that this team needs.”

Team first

That’s what he finally told himself Friday, after he’d talked to his coach and his family and others.

“The best thing about it was we had a game the next day,” Livers said. “So I already knew I had to put it aside, put myself aside, and start thinking about my team.”

But that’s the cruel irony here, too. Livers already put his own pro aspirations aside last spring, when he opted to return for his senior season after testing the NBA draft waters. Then he willingly accepted a lesser role offensively this season, largely due to the arrival of freshman Hunter Dickinson, who gave the Wolverines a true post presence and one of the most balanced starting units in the country.

None of that has been lost on his teammates, either.

“I can’t even imagine what Zay is going through,” Dickinson said. “Just seeing the work that he’s put in, ever since he decided that he was gonna come back for his senior year … I mean, I’d come in an hour early (for practice) and he’s already got a full sweat going in his workouts with the managers. And to see all that work, and for it to end this way for him …”

Dickinson caught himself there, and quickly pivoted to talk about his captain’s Big Ten tournament ending this way, not necessarily his season. But Livers admits he did the exact same thing Friday night when he got the diagnosis.

“Yeah, that was the instant thought I had,” he said.

And it’s one that’ll be hard to shake for the Wolverines as they turn their attention to what comes next.

Michigan will enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, and Livers’ injury shouldn’t change that. But if Saturday’s near-miss against another title contender in Ohio State proved the Wolverines are still capable of making a run, it also showed them how daunting that task will be now.

With Livers, they probably win this game. Without him, they didn’t. And the painful reality of March Madness is this: Next time, it’ll be a season-ender for all the Wolverines.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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