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Michigan coach talks about going back out on the road for the first time in over a month and the challenges Illinois will pose in Thursday’s matchup.
James Hawkins, The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It appears sophomore forward Isaiah Livers is nearing a return.

After sitting out the past two games due to back spasms, Michigan coach John Beilein was optimistic about Livers’ chances to play Thursday at Illinois.

“He was able to practice yesterday to some degree and we’re very hopeful,” Beilein said Wednesday.

Livers was dressed and went through pregame warm-ups during Michigan’s home wins over Penn State and Indiana last week, only to be listed as “doubtful” to play shortly before tip-off.

Prior to the game against the Hoosiers, Livers went through all the pregame drills but appeared tentative and cautious and did everything at a much slower speed. For example, when teammates would accelerate and attack the rim in layup lines, Livers would instead shoot a 3-pointer.

“He was much different than he was yesterday in practice,” Beilein said. “I can’t tell you he’s going to go, but it seemed like he was out a lot of the pain he was in before.”

Livers’ absence opened the door for redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis and freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. to receive more playing time.

Against Penn State, Davis provided some key first-half minutes with junior center Jon Teske getting in foul trouble. Most notably, he threw down a dunk and found freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis under the basket with a wraparound pass around a defender during his seven minutes of playing time.

Then with both Davis and Teske battling foul trouble, Johns had a breakout performance and showed flashes of his potential by recording season highs of eight points (4-for-5 shooting) and eight rebounds in 13 minutes.

“I just tell them just keep working every single day, keep getting better, do the things they can control, and when they get in the game it’ll be a lot easier than practice.” junior guard Zavier Simpson said of his message with Livers sidelined. “Brandon applied that really well. Practice is a lot harder, not just for me but for him, for the whole team. So, the game is a lot easier because you feel like you’re more free.”

Regardless if Livers is able to go against the Fighting Illini, Beilein noted how valuable the increased minutes and experience will be for Johns down the road, just like it has been for several other Wolverines in similar situations.

When former big man Moritz Wagner missed two games last season with an ankle sprain, that led to Teske starting two games and helped him improve. And two seasons before that, former guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was pressed to play as a freshman due to injuries and that paid dividends later in his career.

“Certainly, Brandon really benefited from having the opportunity to go in there and just play basketball, so that was really good,” Beilein said. “That’s how we’re always going to be — you look back at Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and there was no way he was going to play his freshman year. There was no way. He didn’t have a great freshmen year, but it led him to great junior and senior years.

“There’s always good effect from that. Unfortunately for Isaiah, it wasn’t good.”

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Bob Wojnowski, James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau review the college basketball season at midseason for No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Michigan State.
The Detroit News

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The last time Michigan played at Illinois, it led to a postgame comment heard around the Big Ten.

After the Illini pummeled the Wolverines in an 85-69 loss at State Farm Center, former Illinois big man Maverick Morgan called Michigan “more of a white-collar team traditionally.”

The verbal jab served as a source of motivation for the Wolverines the rest of the 2016-17 season and Beilein couldn’t help but chuckle when he was reminded of it on Wednesday.

“The big thing I thought  and that certainly had something to do with that season  but I also thought that we lost to Ohio State at home that year where it was the same mistakes,” Beilein said. “It was the same lack of grit late in the game, in a game, early in the game that our kids still hadn’t grabbed yet. That’s what turned things around as well but that certainly didn’t hurt. It wasn’t just our coaching staff talking about it, it was other teams talking about it. That was really good.”

While Simpson, Teske, Davis and redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews are the only current players who were on the roster when the remark was made, Teske said the makeup of the team has continually become tougher — or more blue collar, in a sense — since his freshman season.

“I can see that (we’ve become tougher) how we continue to just play, practice and grow,” Teske said. “Young guys kind of learn from older guys and that’s why I think me, X, Charles and Austin show the young guys today like Brandon, Dave (DeJulius), Colin (Castleton), all of them to see how hard we work defensively, offensively. Hopefully they can carry that on.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

Michigan at Illinois

Tip-off: 8 p.m. Thursday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.

TV/radio: FS1/950

Records: No. 2 Michigan 15-0, 4-0 Big Ten; Illinois 4-11, 0-4

Outlook: According to KenPom, Illinois is one of the youngest teams in the country and ranks No. 292 in the nation with an experience rank of 1.3 years. … Michigan has won three straight in the series and 13 of the last 15 meetings between the teams. …The Wolverines are one win away from tying the program record for best start to season set in 1985-86 and 2012-13.