NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The roar from the crowd began as Caris LeVert made his way to the scorer's table, and when he checked into the game, he received a standing ovation at Crisler Center.
The sight of the 6-foot-7 senior returning to the court energized Michigan fans everywhere — even though it quickly became clear that LeVert wasn't back to full strength just yet.
"I wouldn't say that I'm all the way back, but I'm working there each and every day," LeVert said Monday, two days after he returned from an 11-game absence. "I think there's enough time left that I'll hopefully be back to my normal self before the end of the season."
The prospect of having LeVert at 100 percent again is enough to brighten Michigan's hopes considerably during a season in which the Wolverines have put themselves in good position to make the NCAA Tournament despite struggling against the best teams on their schedule. LeVert's return from a lower left leg injury may be just what Michigan needs to take another step forward.
LeVert was limited to 18 games last season because of a left foot injury, so when he sat out Michigan's second Big Ten game this season — back on Jan. 2 — there was obvious concern. The Wolverines had already lost Spike Albrecht for the season because of hip issues, and playing without LeVert — who leads the team with an average of 16.5 points per game — presented plenty of challenges.
But Michigan never let the season start spiraling downward. The Wolverines upset Maryland without LeVert, and later went on a four-game winning streak last month during a softer part of the schedule. Michigan (19-7, 9-4 Big Ten) enters Tuesday night's game at Ohio State in fourth place in the conference.
LeVert played only 11 minutes in his return Saturday and didn't score a point, but the Wolverines rallied late behind Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin and beat Purdue. This is a Michigan team that had high expectations at the beginning of the season, and with every bit of progress LeVert can make, the Wolverines should become a little more confident.
Coach John Beilein was asked Monday if the team is starting to look like what he envisioned a few months ago.
"It will when I see Caris out there for a 120-minute practice," Beilein said. "If he's feeling any soreness anywhere in his body right now, we'll pull him out and wait. This is important that he takes his time."
LeVert didn't go into detail about his injury. He said he's tried to focus on returning and helping Michigan this season — as opposed to worrying about his NBA draft prospects. He's averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists in the 15 games he's played.
The schedule down the stretch won't be easy. Michigan plays three of its final five games of the regular season on the road, and one of the two home games is against Big Ten-leading Iowa.
Last weekend may end up being a turning point in terms of solidifying an NCAA bid — because of both the win over Purdue and LeVert's long-awaited return.
"I was a little nervous getting back out there. . I really don't have a great rhythm right now, but it's coming back to me," LeVert said. "My wind's not all the way back, but it felt good being out there."
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
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