Caris LeVert (Getty Images)
Take a look back at how Caris LeVert landed at Michigan, and it's remarkable the number of dominoes that needed to fall to make it happen.
Had Ohio University not upset Michigan and South Florida to reach the 2012 Sweet 16, Illinois probably never offers its head coaching job to former Bobcats coach John Groce that spring. Had Groce not jumped at the opportunity to coach a Big Ten school, LeVert wouldn't have backed out of the letter of intent he signed with Ohio. And had LeVert not decided to reopen his recruitment, he'd probably be tearing up the MAC instead of starring for the Wolverines as a sophomore.
Ohio's loss is Michigan's gain because LeVert's breakout sophomore season is one of the main reasons the Wolverines are in position to capture the Big Ten title. He continued his transformation from skinny role player to Michigan's most consistent complementary scorer on Sunday, tallying 23 points as the Wolverines took over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a 79-70 victory over rival Michigan State.
By completing a season sweep of the Spartans, Michigan takes over as the favorite to win the Big Ten outright. Not only is Michigan one game ahead of Michigan State in the loss column and two ahead of Wisconsin and Iowa, the Wolverines also have the most friendly remaining schedule with road games at Purdue and Illinois and home games against Minnesota and Indiana.
Michigan will be favored in all those after a brilliant effort Sunday in which the Wolverines cut an 11-point deficit to two by halftime, then seized control of the game with a 13-o spurt midway through the second half. Nik Stauskas and LeVert scored all 13 points during that run, the former burying a pair of huge threes and the latter scoring the other seven points including a dunk that extended the Michigan lead to 12.
That Stauskas and LeVert have become Michigan's go-to threats is remarkable considering that is not the script this season was supposed to follow.
When Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. turned pro after leading Michigan to last year's Final Four, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary appeared to be the Wolverines' new one-two punch. McGary underwent season-ending back surgery in December and Robinson has not proven capable of consistently creating his own shot, forcing Stauskas to step into the leadership role.
Stauskas has emerged as one of the Big Ten's best players by adding a playmaking element to his already potent perimeter jump shot, but lately his production has tailed off a bit as opposing defenses have focused so much attention on shadowing him. Other weapons must emerge to take the pressure off Stauskas, and that's where LeVert's development has proven key for Michigan.
In LeVert's past eight games, he has averaged 17.3 points and has scored at least 12 points in seven of them. That has elevated his season average to 13 points per game, good enough for second on the team behind Stauskas. Throw in the lanky 6-foot-6 LeVert's ability to rebound, distribute and guard opposing teams' top perimeter scorers, and his all-around value begins to become clear.
Michigan State certainly got a glimpse of that Sunday as LeVert hurt the Spartans in many ways, whether by attacking the rim, knocking down open threes or finishing in transition. His biggest bucket may have been a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer that gave Michigan momentum after it trailed by double figures earlier in the half.
At the end of Michigan's impressive victory, a Wolverines fan in the crowd held up a sign that read, "You've been Staus-kissed."
It was funny yet only half true. The other guard who entered the season as an afterthought to Stauskas and Robinson had a lot to do with Michigan's win too.
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