Niyo: Walton arrives, and brings Wolverines with him

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan's Derrick Walton Jr. drives against Purdue's Carsen Edwards in the second half.

Ann Arbor — Derrick Walton Jr. took the handoff from Zak Irvin in front of the Michigan bench. The shot clock was ticking down, and the lead over Big Ten-leading Purdue had dwindled from 22 to a half-dozen points Saturday at Crisler Center.

The Wolverines weren’t exactly reeling, but they were hardly rolling at this point. And with the U-M student section counting down the seconds in earnest, Walton knew he had to do something.

Not because it was Senior Day, or because this is his last hurrah. No, as Michigan’s captain and point guard had noted barely 24 hours earlier, on the eve of his final home game, it’s much simpler than that, actually.

“I’ve got one job,” he shrugged, “and that’s to win the game.”

So he did, no questions asked, no apologies necessary, helping Michigan (19-10 overall, 9-7 in the Big Ten) stake its claim to a likely NCAA Tournament bid Saturday with another impressive victory, this time over the 14th-ranked Boilermakers.

Walton tried dribbling to his right, but Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan was there to deny his path. That sent him back to his left, but after losing the handle briefly, Walton had no choice but try something desperate.

He stepped around guard P.J. Thompson, then tossed up a leaning — almost lunging — 3-point attempt just before the buzzer sounded. The shot hit the back of the rim and dropped neatly through the net, bringing his teammates to their feet on the bench, the crowd roaring to life behind them, and the lead back to 76-67 with 1:43 to play.

That was the ballgame, all right, and maybe a lot more.

“Well, I silently thank God because there’s no reason I should’ve made that shot,” Walton said, almost sighing in relief. “It’s probably one of the worst possessions we had all game, just kind of dribbled the ball around. But we had a lot going against us this season, and I think this was one of those moments where we finally got a good bounce.”

And even more bounce in their step as they move on now, hitting the road to finish the regular season at Northwestern and Nebraska, before heading to the postseason — first the Big Ten tourney in Washington D.C. and then the NCAAs somewhere.

Finishing strong

There are no guarantees at this point, but Saturday’s win should do wonders for the Wolverines’ comfort level on Selection Sunday in a couple weeks. They didn’t just survive a late-season schedule that Michigan coach John Beilein a month ago had said “makes my stomach sick.” They’ve actually started to thrive in spite of it — or because of it — winning five of their last six, including impressive resume-building victories over Michigan State, Wisconsin and now Purdue.

“I think this week speaks volumes,” Walton said, “and hopefully the committee sees that.”

Wagner stars as Michigan wins on Senior Day

What we saw Saturday was another coming-out party for sophomore forward Moritz Wagner, who lit up the Boilermakers for 22 points in the first half and finished with a career-high 24 — on 10-of-15 shooting — in just 27 minutes. The Wolverines continually exploited matchup problems at the offensive end, Walton and Wagner playing pick-and-pop on Purdue and All-America candidate Caleb Swanigan almost as if they were running pregame warm-ups, at times.

“That’s just my guy, man,” Walton said of Wagner. “I’ve got an absurd amount of respect for him. That’s just our little thing. He knows where I’m at, I know where he’s at. And with a defense like that, I felt like it was my priority to make sure he got the ball in space. Whenever I had two guys on me, I made sure I found him.”

As a result, Purdue coach Matt Painter found his team trailing by 15 at the half, and the Boilermakers responded by switching defensively on everything in the second half. That limited Wagner’s effectiveness somewhat, and for a time it flustered the Wolverines, who missed their first seven 3-point attempts in the second half.

But Michigan’s playing more than just a two-man game these days. And even without Irvin producing offensively — he was 2-for-8 and finished with four points Saturday — this team is surging at just the right time.

Wagner’s a big part of it, obviously. Others like D.J. Wilson and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson are coming on as well. Even freshman Xavier Simpson, who hit a key 3-pointer to stop one Purdue run midway through the second half, is contributing now.

But all of them are following Walton’s lead, something Michigan fans have been waiting nearly four years to see, ever since Trey Burke bolted for the NBA and a prep All-American from Detroit stepped in to replace the national player of the year as a freshman starter in 2013.

Meeting expectations

Walton helped Michigan reach the Elite Eight his first year, but injuries derailed his sophomore season and hampered him again as junior, though he and Irvin did manage to drag the Wolverines back to the NCAAs with a late push a year ago. This year, though, he looks like he’s finally in complete control, which prompted Painter to say Walton, who finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists without a turnover Saturday, is “what college basketball is about.”

“I mean, he’s really become the guard that I think he always wanted to be and we always wanted him to be,” Beilein said. “And it’s not that he’s been bad in between. He’s such a great, unselfish player, it was always about the team. But I think he convinced himself that if it’s really about the team, then I need to do more.”

That’s something Purdue’s Spike Albrecht always knew was possible. He and Walton were teammates the last three years in Ann Arbor — backcourt mates, actually — and they were on the phone reminiscing about that shared journey the other night. Albrecht’s playing a fifth year as a graduate transfer for the Boilermakers this season, so he was back for a senior night encore in a different uniform Saturday.

“This is the Derrick Walton that Michigan has been waiting to see the last few years,” Albrecht said. “He’s playing as good as anybody in the country, and he showed it tonight.”

More important, though, is what this Michigan team is showing lately.

Ever since having their collective toughness questioned a month ago, labeled a “white-collar” team after a lopsided loss at Illinois, they’ve played like a different group. Defensively, they’ve improved dramatically, closing out on shooters with far greater effort and even holding their own in the paint. And offensively, they’re starting to find a more consistent rhythm. Facing the Big Ten’s best defense Saturday, Michigan averaged an eye-popping 1.26 points per possession.

Some of the Wolverines credit a players-only meeting after that Illinois loss for lighting a fire. That meeting started with Walton vowing he could do more — “addressing myself first, as a leader,” he said — rather than calling out others.

“After that Illinois game I just really felt it was vital for us to come together and, as a unit, talk about what we really wanted to do as a team,” said Walton, who is averaging 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the nine games since, while playing nearly 37 minutes per game. “It’s a different team, but it’s the exact same guys. I think it’s just a different type of mentality. Just get it done, by any means necessary.”

And Saturday, Derrick Walton Jr. made sure his team did exactly that. @JohnNiyo