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UM’s Walton elevates game to new heights

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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Over the last five games Derrick Walton Jr. has posted three 20-plus point performances and is averaging 18.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 33.6 minutes.

Ann Arbor — It’s a side of Derrick Walton Jr. that Zak Irvin has seen before.

As his Michigan teammate for four years, Irvin has noticed moments when Walton senses he’s either able to get off a clean look or get downhill to score and create for others.

But that moment is seemingly slowing down and becoming clearer for Walton, who has elevated his game to new heights.

In last week’s loss at Michigan State, Walton carried Michigan down the stretch and kept the Wolverines in the game by scoring a season-high 24 points, including 19 in the second half and 11 of the team’s final 12 points.

Then in last week’s rout of Indiana, Walton scored 13 of his 21 points in the first half, helping Michigan race out to an early double-digit advantage that it wouldn’t relinquish.

It was the first time Walton has recorded back-to-back games with at least 20 points.

But over the last five games, Walton is statistically playing the best basketball of his career. He’s scored the most points (93) of any five-game stretch in his career.

During that span, Walton has posted three 20-plus point performances and is averaging 18.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 33.6 minutes. He’s shooting 53.3 percent (24-for-45) from the field, 43.5 percent (10-for-23) from 3-point range and 87.5 percent (35-for-40) from the free-throw line.

Walton also recorded his sixth career double-double and first of the season with 13 points and 11 assists against Illinois, and finished a rebound short of his seventh against Michigan State.

“I love that he’s very confident right now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He’s taking the ball to the basket better. His 2-point field-goal percentage is way up. He’s never been over 40 (percent) and he’s way over 40 (at a career-high 45.8 percent). He is playing really well so the numbers would say that, that’s for sure.

“His effort has been tremendous. It’s really important that he just continues to trend in that way and also it’s the same thing at the defensive end. He’s got to continue to grow in that area.”

After relying on outside jumpers and 3-pointers much of the season, Walton has been more aggressive at attacking and finishing at the rim, which has also helped open up clean looks on the perimeter for teammates.

It’s an encouraging and welcomed sign for a team that has struggled to play through contact on offense in Big Ten play.

“He has that look in his eyes where he’s about to carry us and that’s great, defensively as well as offensively,” sophomore center Moritz Wagner said.

“I think, in general, not only him but also the entire team is trying to look more to go to the basket rather than settle for jump shots. I think we have worked a lot on that in the past weeks and he obviously wants to set an example. I think he’s doing a great job of that.”

And it’s a job Michigan needs Walton to continue to do against Ohio State on Saturday as the Wolverines teeter on the NCAA Tournament bubble and he closes in on an exclusive group.

With 1,179 points, 478 rebounds and 389 assists for his career, Walton needs 22 rebounds and 11 assists to become the first Wolverine and 12th Big Ten player (first since Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine) to reach 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists.

“We need that out of him,” Irvin said of Walton’s recent play. “We know what he’s capable of. It’s nothing new to us.

“We’ve seen him do that in practice and in years past. It’s nice to be able to see this. Hopefully everyone can elevate their game, as well.”

Irvin’s health

After battling the flu and being held scoreless in 36 minutes against Michigan State, Irvin said he “feels great” heading into Saturday’s matchup.

Irvin said while he was still dealing with some flu-like symptoms, he thought he was healthy enough to play and able to contribute in certain areas.

“I just really wanted to be out there, especially going against Michigan State,” Irvin said. “I just didn’t want to let my teammates down. I thought I was capable of being out there. Obviously things didn’t go our way, but … I’m healthy now.”

Ohio State at Michigan

Tip-off: 6 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN/WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 14-8, 4-5 Big Ten; Ohio State 13-10, 3-7

Outlook: Michigan will honor the 40th anniversary of its 1977 Big Ten champion team and hold a “Maize Out” for its lone regular-season meeting against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines have won four of the last six meetings. … Junior F Jae’Sean Tate (14.3 points) leads five players averaging double figures for Ohio State, which has lost two straight and is 1-4 in Big Ten road games.

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