Ex-UM coaches rave about W's -- Walton, Wagner, Wilson

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

LaVall Jordan and Bacari Alexander didn't get to watch much Michigan basketball this season.

They had other things on the brain -- namely, their own new gigs as Division I head coaches.

Still, you get the sense both will be tuned in Sunday afternoon when Michigan plays Louisville, with a Sweet 16 bid on the line in Indianapolis.

Detroit Mercy coach Bacari Alexander spent six years on John Beilein's staff at Michigan.

"It'd be nice to get a little revenge from 2013," Jordan said, laughing. "We all remember that one.

"That's one you'll always remember."

There are no players remaining on the Michigan team that played in that 2013 national-championship game, won by Louisville, 82-76.

Jordan and Alexander were there, though, as third-year assistant coaches on John Beilein's staff.

Both moved on after last season, both as head coaches in the Horizon League -- Jordan at Milwaukee, and Alexander at Detroit Mercy.

The Wolverines lost in the Round of 64 last year, Jordan and Alexander's last year on staff, to Notre Dame. But Michigan is absolutely rolling right now, looking nothing like the 7 seed it is -- winning six in a row, including four in four days last week to win the Big Ten tournament.

Michigan (25-11) and No. 2 seed Louisville (25-8) play at 12:10 Sunday (CBS, 950).

Louisville coach Rick Pitino made headlines the last day by calling Michigan the "Golden State Warriors." And while he's known for hyperbole, he's not exactly lyin'.

"When you can score at all five positions, it's hard to go up against," Jordan said. "I don't care who you are, what league you're from. Every position on the court can have a 20-point night.

"That's extremely difficult to match up with."

The difficult matchups all start with a guy Jordan and Alexander know well -- Derrick Walton Jr.

Walton has averaged 26 points over his last three games -- including the final two of the Big Ten tournament in being named Most Outstanding Player, and the first-round shootout win over Oklahoma State on Friday -- and has averaged more than 19 points over his last 16 games.

This is the Walton fans have been waiting for since arriving from Chandler Park Academy.

He's showed signs of being a star since his freshman year, but was saddled with foot and ankle injuries the past two seasons. His sophomore season was shut down; as a junior, he played through it.

"I think it's important to remind folks that he was able to do similar things during his freshman year, when he helped guide the Wolverines to an Elite Eight appearances, as well," Alexander said.

"What's the common denominator between the two seasons is, quite frankly, his health.

"His injury caused two things. One, it caused obviously the missed time, you know, of getting reps. But what it also does is impairs your ability to get your timing right and chemistry with other players around you.

"At the point-guard position, it's so important to be able to do things verbally and nonverbally."

While Walton's game was always there, his leadership skills weren't.

An introvert when he arrived on campus, Walton always deferred to the older players to handle those leadership things -- including Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert early last season.

Then, first Albrecht and then LeVert were lost for the season, and someone else had to step up. Sometimes it was Zak Irvin -- more the screamer -- and other times it was Walton.

It's not hard now to see who the emotional leader for Michigan has become. It's Walton.

"He patiently waited his turn," Alexander said. "Maybe, even sometimes, to the chagrin of his coaches during that period. I think what's happened is he's taken a heightened sense of ownership. ... When the sands-in-the-hourglass effect starts to come int play and you're in the final stages of your career, you look to the left and look to the right, and well, there's nobody else to defer to. 'I have to do it.' I think he's going through quite an epiphany."

Jordan, who like Alexander served on Beilein's coaching staff for six seasons, agrees with Alexander's assessment.

He even used the "hourglass" phrase.

"The kid loves winning. You go back to his high-school senior year, they won more than they ever won at Chandler Park. He won an AAU championship that summer. He wants to be defined as a winner," Jordan said. "We would talk often, he always wanted that to be what he is known for.

"Whatever he's gotta do to be remembered as a winner."

Walton is the big story, but there are others about Michigan, too.

The defense, for starters, really picked up the intensity down the stretch this season -- perhaps the work of one of Jordan and Alexander's replacements, defensive guru Billy Donlon.

Then there's been the emergence of sophomore forward Moritz Wagner -- who started to open eyes during Michigan's suprising run in last year's Big Ten tournament -- and junior swingman D.J. Wilson.

Wagner's rise has been a quick one. Wilson's has taken a big more time, as he struggled to get on the court in previous seasons because of defensive deficiencies.

Alexander called the "secret behind the sauce" renowned strength-and-conditioning coach Jon Sanderson for both Wilson and Wagner.

Jordan said they both just needed the reps, which, in turn, build confidence.

"Those two kids are so talented and skilled, it's more just a mind set with both of them," Jordan said. "You know as you grow as a collegiate athlete, you get thrown in there at some point in your career where it's gonna be on you. The other guys are gone. That's kind of where they were this year. It can't just on Zak and Derrick.

"They had to take a step in order for them to be a good team."

It may have taken awhile. In fact, not long ago, Michigan was considered an NCAA Tournament bubble team.

Now, it's barely an underdog against Louisville, the teams meeting for the first time since that 2013 championship game.

Jordan and Alexander are at different schools now, with a whole lot more to worry about than Michigan. But that doesn't mean they won't be watching.