2013-14 Season

Caris LeVert is Michigan’s X-factor

Michigan vs Purdue_7Caris LeVert has had his ups and downs this season as far as scoring production goes. But even those who have given LeVert flak for his inconsistency in the scoring column had to admit the guard had a tremendous game on Thursday during Michigan’s 75-66 win over Purdue at the Crisler Center. (Photo: Scott Mapes)

LeVert, however, admitted no such thing. Asked about what he takes away from a game in which he scored 14 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and registered three steals, two blocks and two assists, the sophomore responded by addressing the one statistic that was wanting: turnovers.

“Turnovers, definitely,” LeVert said, without hesitation. “I had some bad ones. I chased a couple down but just turnovers.”

Spoken like a true John Beilein-coached player.

LeVert did have a few too many turnovers — four — but from a fan perspective, that was far from the most important takeaway from his performance against Purdue. It’s been evident at points throughout the season, but it was obvious on Thursday: LeVert is Michigan’s “X factor.”

With his unique combination of height, length, ballhandling and quickness, LeVert has the ability to sort of “fill in the gaps” and do whatever Michigan needs him to do. On Thursday, that happened to include scoring — thus the 14 points. However, it also involved playing solid man-to-man defense and being an instigator at the top of the zone when Michigan went to it; it meant crashing the glass with Michigan’s bigs occupied with Purdue’s behemoth center, AJ Hammons; LeVert also had a major role in handling the ball against Purdue’s press and aiding Derrick Walton in that way.

This is what John Beilein has been telling us all season: even when he’s not scoring, Michigan is a better team with LeVert on the floor.

“When I was telling everybody before when there was this concern about Caris, we’re watching — I don’t know, he reminds me of Manny Harris with his speed right now,” Beilein said during the post-game press conference. “He can get to places that you can’t figure out, how’s he just get there? He’s really good at getting that third guy, now Derrick’s doing some things, that’s really helped us offensively.”

It’s LeVert’s unique skill set that makes him so valuable. What stood out the most against Purdue is his nose for the ball. What other player weighing 200 pounds at 6-foot-6 could pull down 11 rebounds against one of the best rebounding teams in the Big Ten? The Pickerington native just does things not many other players can do.

His effectiveness at the top of Michigan’s zone defense was another example. Beilein said his assistants convinced him to run the zone, and while it wasn’t perfect, LeVert wreaked havoc at the top with his absurd length and deceptive athleticism. And it’s not just his physical gifts that make him to dangerous in that spot — it’s his smarts.

“A lot of times, they don’t really know we’re in a zone most of the time,” LeVert said after the game. “So really, I’m just looking for indecision with the ballhandler. Playing passing lanes, I guess.”

LeVert’s demeanor, like his game, is understated. His ability at the top of the zone is a big reason why the Michigan assistants have a compelling case when it comes to running it. With LeVert patrolling the lanes, it will likely result in points.

Purdue coach Matt Painter addressed LeVert’s impact on the game during his post-game comments.

“He’s a good player. He’s very versatile. He understands angles, he can score the basketball,” Painter said. “He’s a guy, I know his high school coach pretty well, he’s just worked. He wasn’t a player early in his high school career, and those are some of the best players you can have in college because they don’t have a wall. They appreciate things. They’ve had to work for everything.”

Knowing how LeVert was a late bloomer in high school, knowing the work he’s already put in, it’s impossible to watch him and not think about how much better he can still become. The do-it-all sophomore has length, quickness, ballhandling ability and is an above-average shooter. He has all the tools, and he hasn’t reached his peak, not by a long shot. This season, LeVert fills in the gaps as Michigan’s X factor. His role could look very different the next two years.

LeVert’s prospective development is very exciting, but for now, we can watch another of John Beilein’s players come into his own. And we can appreciate LeVert for what he does, rather than what he doesn’t do — even if LeVert himself won’t.

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