LeVert adds extra sting to Wolverines win

INDIANAPOLIS – The guys in suits on the bench, the coaches who are in charge of telling Caris LeVert what he’s supposed to do, were practically making a windstorm on the sidelines they were waving their arms so hard, cajoling Levert to go back on defense.

LeVert ignored them.

He won’t be running gassers for his insubordination.

He might, in fact, get the game ball.

LeVert’s act of defiance, opting to go up and get an offensive rebound instead of sprinting back on defense, allowed Michigan to preserve a 72-69 victory over Ohio State and send the Wolverines to the Big Ten tournament final.

“This one time he gets the pass,” head coach John Beilein said. “He took a chance, but that’s what players do. That’s why he’s had the successful year he’s had, because he knows when to take a risk and be a player.”

That it was LeVert getting the rebound – not to mention scoring 17 points –- made it all a little sweeter for Michigan and a whole lot more sour for Ohio State.

These two schools, you may have heard, don’t like each other much. And LeVert is a Columbus kid; he played on a state championship team at Pickerington Central High School.

And never got so much as a phone call from the Buckeyes.

That would sting a little bit no matter where LeVert attended school right about now. He’s arguably one of the biggest surprises/breakout stars of this season. He averages 13.4 points, which might qualify him for criminally overlooked status.

That he went to Michigan and is playing so well is pouring a shaker of Morton’s on the gaping wound.

Don’t think LeVert doesn't know it, either.

“It means a lot to me,” LeVert said. “To play like this on a big stage like the Big Ten tournament and to do it against Ohio State.”

Yes, you could call that a dagger shot.

Of course, the Wolverines shot a lot of daggers at the Buckeyes in the semifinal – 12 3-pointers, in particular – but Ohio State kept taking the body blows. The Buckeyes trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half, got down again in the second and kept coming back.

If there is a silver lining in a loss – and finding one in a loss to Michigan isn't easy – the Buckeyes ought to leave here feeling better about themselves and their offense. They rallied from down 18 to beat Nebraska and matched Michigan almost bucket for bucket.

Even with LeVert’s big rebound, Ohio State had a chance to tie it at the buzzer.

But Aaron Craft, who idled on the bench for much of the second half with four fouls, fumbled the ball away as he tried to go up for the shot.

Guess who was there when Craft went up?

Yep, Caris LeVert.

It was that kind of revenge-exacting day for the kid.

“I think he just lost the ball, actually,” LeVert said. “I don’t think I got a hand on it. He just lost the ball and time ran out.”

In Thad Matta's defense, LeVert wasn't exactly boxing up recruiting mail from across the country. Ohio offered him a scholarship following his junior year, and because nobody else seemed terribly interested, he took it. Then Ohio coach John Groce left for Illinois and LeVert decided to re-evaluate things.

By then, he’d done a little more. The state title came in his senior year, as did a bunch of honors, and still not a single jingle from Ohio State.

So when Michigan offered, he jumped.

“I really don’t know why I wasn't recruited more,” he said. “Maybe I was a little undersized.”

After LeVert’s first college season, it didn't seem like anyone missed much. He averaged just 2.3 points per game.

But this season, when the Wolverines went searching for offense, there came LeVert.

He’s second to Nik Stauskas in scoring on the team and a big answer to the riddle of Michigan’s surprising success this season. The Wolverines lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke after last year’s run to the NCAA championship game and then lost Mitch McGary early in the season to a back injury.

That’s three starters, which usually wouldn't spell good things for a young team. Yet here are the Wolverines, 25-7, regular-season Big Ten champs and now gunning for the tournament title.

Beilein talked after the game about his players' genuine affection for one another and how that’s allowed Michigan to stick together despite the curveballs.

“They have each other’s backs,” he said. “They trust each other.”

And he trusts them.

Trusts them so much, in fact, that he doesn't even mind a little insubordination.

Especially when it works.