ANN ARBOR — It is a good thing that Michigan didn’t have to play a fourth straight top-10 team Thursday night.
They probably wouldn’t have beaten one.
Luckily, for the No. 10 Wolverines, they were facing struggling Purdue, and a decent performance was good enough for a 75-66 victory.
"There are never easy games in this league," said John Beilein after the Wolverines handed Purdue its third straight loss. "That’s a team that has been to a lot of NCAA tournaments in the last few years, and went to a Sweet 16 fairly recently. They are having a tough season right now, but they are still a very good young team."
Michigan was unusually sloppy with the ball, turning it over 16 times, and got beaten up on the boards. Purdue grabbed nearly 40 percent of its missed shots, while the Wolverines were only able to get the ball back 24 percent of the time.
"The turnovers and offensive rebounds were unacceptable tonight, and we know that," Beilein said. "That’s something we’ll be working on before our next game. They’ve got a big guy inside, and we have a small lineup, but we still have to get the rebounds."
Purdue guard Ronnie Johnson said that the Boilermakers knew they were going to have to gamble on defense.
"Michigan has all those great shooters, and they can go inside-out on you so quickly," he said. "If we just let them take shots, we weren’t going to beat them. We did a lot of studying and practicing against their 2-1-2 set, and that’s what got us the turnovers."
Caris LeVert had four of Michigan’s turnovers, and thought he and his teammates started pressing a little after early mistakes.
"We didn’t like the turnovers, but I think some of them came when we were trying to make up for the mistakes we had already made," he said. "You can’t do that. You have to forget about those mistakes and just keep playing your game."
LeVert more than made up for a few sloppy passes, though. He had his first career double-double, finishing with 14 points and 11 rebounds. After never topping seven rebounds in his first season-and-a-half, he now has 18 in Michigan’s last two games, an especially impressive achievement for someone playing on the perimeter. It did help him that Purdue went 2-for-14 on 3-pointers, meaning he was able to grab several long rebounds.
LeVert and Nik Stauskas were also impressive on the offensive end, combining for 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting, but it was Michigan’s third guard who stole the show for a second straight game. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr., the Big Ten’s reigning Freshman of the Week, had 14 points on seven shots and added three rebounds and three assists.
Walton’s most impressive play of the game came at the end of the first half. Purdue center A.J. Hammons had just committed a lane violation with 4.5 seconds to play, preventing Purdue from shooting two free throws that could have cut Michigan’s lead to 35-31.
Instead, Michigan quickly inbounded the ball to Walton, who blew past Hammons and hit a layup at the buzzer to give the Wolverines an eight-point lead.
"That was my fault on both ends of the floor," Hammons said. "I jumped the free throw, and then I thought I could stop the ball, but he went right by me. I didn’t realize he was that quick."
Generously listed at 6-foot-1, Walton is used to opposing players underestimating him, but after the first 20 games of his career, he is well on his way to joining Darius Morris and Trey Burke as point guards who thrived at Michigan under Beilein.
This time, Hammons didn’t expect Walton to show the quickness that led Beilein to compare him to Manny Harris, and it gave Michigan a key boost going into the second half. They came out hot in the second half, making nine of their first 11 shots, and Purdue never had a chance.
For the night, Michigan shot 60.9 percent, including 53.8 percent on 3-pointers.
"We struggled with a lot of things, but we shot the ball well," Beilein said. "That helps overcome a lot of things."