March 20, 2014 at 2:18 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan's 'outliers' are passing the torch

Rod Beard previews Michigan-Wofford
Rod Beard previews Michigan-Wofford: Detroit News sports writer breaks down Michigan's first game in the NCAA Tournament.

To get somewhere, sometimes you have to come out of nowhere. It happens often in the NCAA Tournament, and for Michigan to make another run, someone might have to do it again.

Stars must shine, thatís a given. But a year ago at this time, Spike Albrecht was a skinny freshman with an enthusiastic bounce who looked like he wandered over from middle school practice. Now heís one of the grizzled leaders for the Wolverines, and by ďgrizzled,Ē I mean ďfinally using a razor.Ē His out-of-nowhere outburst in the NCAA championship game was epic, borderline mythic.

As Michigan enters the tournament tonight against Wofford, Albrechtís role hasnít changed a lot, but the point guard has. Derrick Walton Jr. is now the wide-eyed freshman, although he has started every game but one. With so much attention on Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III, the Wolverines will need someone at some point to do more, and Walton will get his chance.

John Beilein always talks about ďoutliers,Ē a player who can step outside his normal production. In last yearís tournament, it was Mitch McGary, who averaged 10.7 rebounds. Then it was Albrecht, who scored 17 points in the first half filling in for Trey Burke in the 82-76 loss to Louisville.

Itís tough to win tight games with young guards but itís become Michiganís blueprint, about to be tested again. Burke was a sophomore, and Stauskas and LeVert are sophomores now. The greatest endorsement of Walton is that it wouldnít be outside his norm to handle the pressure. There always are concerns when a freshman takes his first tournament dribbles, but if he gets nervous, he can turn to a guy who didnít shy from the heat.

ďHeís been great all season, and heís not going to be fazed by it at all,Ē Albrecht said. ďHeís a big-time player and Iím excited to see him get out there. Itís a fun tournament, and the atmosphere is a little bit different, you know? Itís where crazy things can happen.Ē

Albrecht to Walton

Albrecht knows better than anyone. He went from unknown backup to a folk hero tweeting at Kate Upton after the title game. He has learned to handle it, and now itís Waltonís turn. Beilein knew he was getting a good floor leader from Detroit Chandler Park Academy, where Walton played for his father. It was just impossible to know how quickly it would happen.

In one of Michiganís biggest victories, 75-70 at Michigan State, Walton was spectacular down the stretch, finishing with a career-high 19 points. Beilein always has Albrecht ready to step in ó his minutes have doubled this season ó but Walton has been so solid, there hasnít been a need to split the position.

ďThese guys do a great job of keeping me level-headed,Ē Walton said. ďTheyíre always in my ear telling me to stay confident. Knowing these guys are with me, I have no fear at all. I know Iím a freshman, but I canít play like a freshman anymore.Ē

Heís confident beyond his years, but not a boisterous, cocky leader. His ratio of assists (2.9 per game) to turnovers (1.6) isnít great, but heís hitting 39 percent of 3-pointers, 79 percent of free throws and looks comfortable late in games.

Valuing possessions is huge for the Wolverines because they donít have an imposing defense. Their offense can be scintillating but itíll have to be especially efficient in the tournament, and when their shooting is off, they have to drive. Stauskas and LeVert are very adept at it, and the point guards have to direct it.

Albrecht committed five turnovers the entire Big Ten regular season, a picture of poise that belies his energetic persona. At 5-11, itís not easy to find big moments, but he never stops looking. Thatís how he got his nickname back home in Crown Point, Ind., because he wore his baseball spikes everywhere, waiting for the next opportunity.

He has scored in double figures once this season ó 10 against then-No. 1 Arizona ó but heís lethal on 3-pointers (39 percent). And no, heís not preparing for the tournament by reminiscing about last yearís magic.

ďIt was crazy for a couple weeks after that, but itís gone back to normal, thankfully,Ē Albrecht said. ďObviously the NCAA Tournament is no joke, but we have high expectations. We knew we could make a run at it, and thatís exactly how we feel this year.Ē

Laying low again

It hasnít changed, even if outside perceptions did following the 69-55 loss to Michigan State. The Spartans shot up to NCAA favoriteís status, while the Wolverines are back to laying low, which they claim to prefer.

Beilein doesnít mind it and neither do his young guards, who somehow donít seem so young anymore.

ďAny loss lights a fire under us,Ē Walton said. ďOur guys are very confident in themselves ó as you see, when shots arenít falling, we continue to take them. But to say weíre just a jump-shooting team, I donít think itís true. Guys on this team will do anything.Ē

For the Wolverines to get on a roll, someone will have to do more, and thereís no shortage of fresh-faced volunteers.

Derrick Walton Jr., a freshman who has started all but one game for Michigan, tastes NCAA Tournament pressure today. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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