Wolver­ines be­com­ing adept at play­ing fol­low the leader

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - jerry.brewer@wash­post.com

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.

Jerry Brewer

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

Der­rick Wal­ton Jr. had 29 points, nine re­bounds and nine as­sists to lead Michi­gan to the Big Ten tour­na­ment ti­tle game at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter.

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