Bacon: Michigan removes white-collar reputation

John U. Bacon, Special to The Detroit News
Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. raises his fist next to Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ after a basket during the second half Thursday night.

Michigan’s basketball team, led by two strong seniors, was expected to return to the NCAA Tournament this year, for the seventh time in coach John Beilein’s 10th season at Michigan. But after the Wolverines dropped three of their first four Big Ten games, few would have taken that bet. They were all but left for dead.

They weren’t just losing. They were losing ugly. When they played a weak Illinois squad, they all but rolled over in an 85-69 blowout. Afterward, an Illinois player said Michigan played “white-collar basketball” – which is not exactly a compliment in a league generally considered to be the most physical in the country. Not long after, Beilein himself said Michigan didn’t have any “junkyard dogs out there.”

The defense stunk, the effort was weak, the team was soft. Some folks started seriously wondering if Beilein would be fired.

But that’s when senior captain Derrick Walton Jr. called a “players-only” meeting to straighten the team out. Walton later explained to a reporter that there were only so many games left, and he thought their team was better than the ones they’d be losing to, so it was time to show that.

"The coaches only need to say so much,” Walton said. “They make the calls. They make the adjustments. They make the subs. But it’s on us to make the plays out there.”

The next day, Michigan beat a mediocre Nebraska team – but they beat ’em. Michigan then battled the Big Ten’s top team, Wisconsin, before losing by a mere four points. But they were playing defense now, crashing the boards for rebounds, and diving for loose balls. They were tougher.

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The Wolverines proved it in their rematch against Illinois – the team that called them “white collar.” Even though the Wolverines were playing at home, they decided to wear their navy blue road uniforms – and there was a message in that. They played like blue-collar workers, beating up on Illinois, then blowing out Indiana at home by the stunning score of 90-60.

The difference was obvious, and so was the leader: Derrick Walton. He was running the floor, hitting his shots, passing with aplomb, and even grabbing rebounds, though half the time he was out there, he was the shortest guy on the court. He had taken over the team, made it his, and brought them back to life.

Even after a dispiriting loss to a weak Ohio State team, Walton picked his teammates back up again.

They next traveled to Indiana, where Michigan had won exactly once in its last 18 tries. No matter. Walton’s Wolverines dominated the Hoosiers from start to finish. Walton became only the third Wolverine to notch 1,000 points, 400 assists and 400 rebounds. The others were Gary Grant and Jalen Rose, two of Michigan’s greatest players. When they arrived in Ann Arbor, Grant and Rose were already big national stars – and they left even bigger stars. Walton has come out of nowhere, but he’s now at their level.

Thursday night against Wisconsin, Walton’s Wolverines beat one of the Big Ten’s best teams, proving they’re for real.

Walton wasn’t at his best, shooting 1-of-8 from the field and scoring just five points. But he had eight assists, five rebounds and a pair of steals, and he once again provided important leadership.

“We haven't been on the left side of the column against those guys too often, so it's a great feeling,” Walton told reporters after the game. “I know coach is ecstatic and more so our guys are overwhelmed with how much this game meant to us.”

Whatever the Wolverines do down the stretch, two things have been established: They can’t be accused of playing white-collar basketball anymore, and Derrick Walton is one of the best leaders Michigan basketball has ever seen.

John U. Bacon is a former Detroit News sports reporter and best-selling author. He is on Twitter at @Johnubacon and his website is