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Michigan seniors face big task in home finale

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — For Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, it’s one last chance to lead Michigan to victory at Crisler Center.

For Mark Donnal, Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan, it’s the last time they’ll get dressed in the locker room and take the court as a Wolverine.

With family and friends on hand, the five seniors will be honored and receive a framed jersey in a pregame ceremony today before Michigan hosts No. 14 Purdue in its home finale.

But after a few tears are shed and Senior Day festivities wrap up, it’s a chance for the Wolverines to give their NCAA Tournament hopes a major lift and move one step closer to their third postseason in four years.

“It’s another opportunity,” Walton said. “You only get to put on that jersey so many more times and you remember the most recent times that you have. Outside of an individual want to go out with a win, it’s just about this team and our postseason goal still being intact.”

The Big Ten-leading Boilermakers will look to spoil the moment as they enter the matchup as the hottest team in the conference, winning six straight and nine of 10, and seemingly without any weaknesses.

In Big Ten play, Purdue leads the conference in scoring offense (78.2 points), free-throw percentage (81.1 percent), 3-point field-goal percentage (41.2 percent), defensive rebounds (28.6), assists (17.6), scoring margin (plus-9.5) and rebounding margin (plus-5.5).

It also ranks third in scoring defense (68.7 points), field-goal percentage (46.6 percent), field-goal defense (41.7 percent) and 3-point defense (31.9 percent).

“They got a little piece of everything that you really need to win a Big Ten championship,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You look at college basketball and the parity throughout the country, if you win the Big Ten championship you can win a national championship. We’re going to have to bring our hard hats. Nobody outhustles them, nobody outworks and we’re going to have to play really good defensive and offensive game.”

And it all starts with slowing down player-of-the-year candidate and double-double machine Caleb Swanigan, something few teams have done.

In last season’s home win over Purdue, Irvin drew the task of guarding Swanigan. Beilein doesn’t expect that to be the case today. With improved shooting range and a slimmer frame, Swanigan alternates between the four and five and Beilein said defensive matchups will be dictated by which position he’s at.

“Last year when we played them, we did not guard him in the perimeter,” Beilein said. “He’s become an elite 3-point shooter. He’s tough. You got to hope that ball doesn’t bounce his way because he gets his hands on it, it’s over and it’s in.”

Surrounding Swanigan is 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas, who ranks third in the conference in field-goal percentage (59.5 percent), and a litany of sharpshooters in Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline, who all shoot at least 40 percent from 3-point range.

Beilein said it’s the most balanced Purdue team he’s seen and its inside-out play will stress Michigan’s ability to help in the post and recover to step out on the perimeter.

“They have weapons one through five, and even coming off the bench. They got shooters all over the place,” Irvin said.

“Everybody knows about Swanigan, big Haas they got down there.”

Then there’s also the addition of former Wolverine Spike Albrecht, playing at Purdue as a graduate transfer.

After spending four seasons at Michigan, Beilein said he’s occasionally texted Albrecht throughout this season and added there is some level of concern with how much information he can share. When Walton and Irvin FaceTimed with Albrecht on Thursday, Walton’s first question was if he gave up secrets.

While Walton and Irvin are looking forward to seeing Albrecht again, their main concern is capping their careers with one last Crisler Center win.

“I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than beating Purdue at home, ranked,” Irvin said, “and it really solidifying us in the (NCAA) Tournament.”

Purdue at Michigan

Tip-off: 4 Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN2/950

Records: No. 14 Purdue 23-5 (12-3 Big Ten); Michigan 18-10 (8-7)

Outlook: Michigan will honor its five seniors in a pregame ceremony prior to its home finale and the ChadTough Foundation with specialty T-shirts. The Wolverines have won five of their last six at Crisler Center. ... Purdue has won six straight and is led by sophomore F Caleb Swanigan (18.6 points, 12.9 rebounds), who leads the nation with 23 double-doubles. ... The Boilermakers rank first in Big Ten play in scoring offense (78.2 points) and third in scoring defense (68.7 points). @jamesbhawkins