Wolverines becoming adept at playing follow the leader
When he finished his masterpiece, Derrick Walton Jr. blew a kiss to the Michigan fans who had overtaken Verizon Center. He probably should have bowed, too, but he’s the understated type, so chill that his strength and conditioning coach, Jon Sanderson, posted an office calendar and requested that the point guard grade his vocal leadership daily. It has been a long process for Walton to learn to take command.
Here he is, though, in March of his senior season, exhibiting mastery of the concept and revealing the virtue of growing over four years of college. In the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament Saturday at Verizon Center, Walton controlled the conference’s most efficient offense in the same skillful manner
that he has for most of the year, but he added some flair this time. He dominated the Wolverines’ 84-77 victory over Minnesota, scoring a career-high 29 points, distributing nine assists, grabbing nine rebounds and swiping two steals.
His impact seemed even greater than the stellar numbers. In a tight game, Walton scored or assisted on 18 of Michigan’s final 20 points. You couldn’t have run a team better. Walton looked like the best lead guard in the Big Ten. Which was kind of the point. Walton had extra motivation against Minnesota because Golden Gophers guard Nate Mason made first-team all-Big Ten over him earlier this week. Afterward, Walton didn’t pound his chest and demand people look at this game as proof of who’s better. That’s just not who he is. Besides, Mason had a solid game, leading Minnesota with 23 points and six rebounds despite shooting only 10 of 23 from the field.
It was a fun matchup, and Walton was better. Although he didn’t take time to gloat afterward, Walton had teammates prodding him before the game, making sure he knew what he could prove. But Walton was thinking bigger.
A week ago, before Michigan flew to a game in Nebraska, Coach John Beilein asked Walton to ride with him to the airport. He just wanted to chat with his best player about life. But Walton was focused on a mission.
“Coach, we’re going to go win that tournament,” Walton said that day. “That’s my goal, is to win that tournament. Coach, let’s go win that tournament.”
All week, the story has been about what it took just to get to the Big Ten tourney: The traumatic aborted takeoff; the mad dash to get here in time; the feelings of relief that they were able to walk away healthy; the reflections on life and bonding that occurred in the aftermath.
Those things matter much more than basketball, but the Wolverines still arrived on a mission. And since they were blessed to carry on with that mission, they might as well follow through and honor Walton’s wishes.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us,” said guard Zak Irvin, who has been Walton’s roommate for four years. “We just want to keep it going.”
The Big Ten final will be the stiffest challenge for eighthseeded Michigan. Playing their fourth game in as many days, the Wolverines will play No. 2 seed Wisconsin — the league’s most balanced and dangerous team — on Sunday. Walton will again need to be at his best.
“At this point of the year, the last game doesn’t matter,” he said. “Like we said before the game, nobody cares that you were tough yesterday. It’s all about what you do today.”
Walton could apply those words to his entire career. He came to Michigan in 2013 as a top-50 recruit with an enormous responsibility. He had to replace Trey Burke, the current Washington Wizard, who had won national player of the year honors and led the Wolverines to the national title game. As a freshman, Walton was solid on a veteran team that advanced to the Elite Eight. But his sophomore and junior seasons turned into a slog through injuries and inconsistency. Michigan missed the NCAA tournament his second year, and it lost to Notre Dame in the first round last season.
He entered his senior season with an uncertain legacy. His play was measured against the more dynamic performance another Class of 2013 point guard from the state of Michigan, Monte Morris, who is Iowa State’s leading scorer and led it to the Big 12 title Saturday night. In recruiting, Michigan had prioritized Walton over Morris, but was that the right call?
There’s not much regret anymore. Walton has had a fabulous final season, averaging 15 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He’s the man who orchestrates an offense that rarely beats itself. Sometimes, the Wolverines are an offensive wonder when executing a system that has produced high assists, low turnovers and good shooting. When they’re on their offensive game and show just a little attention to detail on the other end, they’re capable of putting on a show.
Still, this is a 23-11 team that remained on the NCAA tournament bubble until recently. It has been a frustrating journey at times. But since an early February loss to Ohio State, Michigan has won nine of 11. And Walton has run the show as well as any point guard in the country.
When the NCAA tournament begins, there will be focus on point guards such as UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, who will be asked to verify their status as potential NBA lottery picks. Kansas guard Frank Mason III, a player of the year favorite, will garner headlines as he tries to lead the Jayhawks to a championship. But away from the spotlight, Walton will be as important to his team’s hopes as any player in the field of 68. He is kind of like Maryland’s Melo Trimble in that way, only Walton isn’t as explosive a scorer.
“He’s a really good player,” Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino said of Walton. “To my mind, he’s one of the most underappreciated point guards in the country. Doesn’t surprise me when he plays well. I thought he was terrific.”
Walton is the key to Beilein’s offense, one of the most complex in college basketball. He has committed only 60 turnovers in 34 games. In his career, he has never averaged more than two turnovers a game. Now, in addition to the steady handle and passing, he understands how to take over with his scoring.
“For the most part, these guys have faith in me to make a play,” Walton said. “That’s all I need, to know that they trust me. It’s easy for me to make the right play.”
When he returns to campus next week, Walton should not hesitate to give himself a good leadership grade.
Derrick Walton Jr. had 29 points, nine rebounds and nine assists to lead Michigan to the Big Ten tournament title game at Verizon Center.