ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — The final shot of Michigan’s season went to the team’s top player. Derrick Walton missed, but it was an ending the Wolverines could accept.
“It looked good from my angle,” teammate Zak Irvin said. “No one else on this team that we wanted taking that shot.”
Michigan lost its regional semifinal to Oregon 69-68 on Thursday night in a game that slipped away in the last few possessions. Although the Wolverines were obviously disappointed not to advance, their transformation from NCAA bubble team to Big Ten Tournament champion and Sweet 16 participant became one of the most compelling stories of the college basketball season.
At the start of February, the Wolverines looked like underachievers, a senior-led team that might not even make the NCAA Tournament. What happened since then will remain one of the prouder stretches in the recent history of the program. After a strong finish to the regular season, the Wolverines went through a harrowing experience when their plane slid off the runway on the eve of their conference tournament opener.
They eventually made it to the Big Ten Tournament and won it with four victories in four days. Two more wins in the NCAA Tournament capped a 26-win season that finally ended with the loss to the Ducks.
“It’s the tightest bunch I’ve been around in all my years of playing basketball. Just a very selfless group,” Walton said after the loss to Oregon. “I had the joy of being a part of it and being one of the leaders.”
Walton was the key player in Michigan’s surge, providing leadership at point guard that helped the Wolverines play the type of efficient, selfless basketball on the offensive end that’s become the norm under coach John Beilein. Irvin, a fellow senior, made his own contributions down the stretch, and younger players like Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson improved significantly in 2016-17.
Wagner and Wilson gave Michigan more production than expected in the frontcourt, and they played so well that there’s at least some speculation that the NBA could be an option before their college eligibility is up. Wagner was a sophomore, and although Wilson was listed as a junior, he too has two years of eligibility left after receiving a medical waiver for 2014-15.
If Wagner and Wilson are back, the 2017-18 season should be an interesting one for the Wolverines. Beilein’s best teams at Michigan have featured terrific guard play and perimeter shooting. Wagner and Wilson are both threats from 3-point range, but at 6-foot-11 and 6-foot-10, they’re also capable of scoring at the rim. The Wolverines could have a different look if they become the top two options offensively.
Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews is set to play for Michigan after sitting out this season, and solid role players Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson can provide dependable outside shooting.
The man who will really be on the spot is Xavier Simpson, the heir apparent to Walton at point guard.
Simpson averaged only 1.6 points a game in his debut season for the Wolverines, but he looked more comfortable toward the end, and if he can make a big improvement as a sophomore, that would help Michigan tremendously.
Although Walton and Irvin will be difficult to replace, the program enters the offseason with some positive vibes for the first time in a little while. From 2012-14, the Wolverines won two Big Ten titles and made a Final Four appearance, but they missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and made it only narrowly in 2016.
For a while, 2017 looked like it might end in mediocre fashion, but Michigan’s players and coaches changed all that with a finishing kick that had the Wolverines again playing like one of the best teams in the Big Ten. The plane accident brought more attention to Michigan, but what the team did on the court was an even more encouraging sign for the future.
“The kids fought their hearts out this whole season, but particularly this last six weeks, to be more than a story,” Beilein said. “It was a great team.”