ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s turnaround began well before the plane accident.
Yes, the team’s harrowing aviation mishap — and the Big Ten Tournament title that followed — may be remembered most when Wolverines fans look back on this season, but Derrick Walton has been leading a resurgence in Ann Arbor for well over a month now. As the seventh-seeded Wolverines prepare to face 10th-seeded Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament on Friday, their point guard gives them plenty of reasons to feel confident.
“He’s really taking over this team,” said Zak Irvin, Walton’s teammate and fellow senior.
On Feb. 4, after a home loss to Ohio State, Michigan was running out of time. The schedule down the stretch was going to be tough, and although Walton and the Wolverines had shown flashes of brilliance, they were 4-6 in conference play and in danger of missing the NCAAs. Since then, Michigan (24-11) has lost only twice in 12 games, and the Wolverines were starting to look capable of playing deep into the postseason even before they won the Big Ten tourney .
Walton has been the protagonist. As a freshman in the 2013-14 season, he took over the point guard spot vacated by Trey Burke, who had left early for the NBA. Walton led Michigan to a Big Ten title right away, but then his sophomore season was derailed by a lingering toe problem, and the Wolverines barely made the NCAA Tournament when he was a junior.
This season, it took a while for Michigan to click in conference play, but beginning with a 29-point win over Michigan State on Feb. 7, the Wolverines started looking like one of the elite teams in the Big Ten. Their only losses since then were at Minnesota in overtime and at Northwestern on a last-second shot.
During the Big Ten regular season, Walton averaged 16.1 points and 4.9 assists a game while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range. In the conference tournament, he had 82 points and 25 assists in four games.
Coach John Beilein said Walton seems to welcome defensive switches that leave bigger players trying to guard him, and Walton indicated that he’s developed a better feel for the game with experience.
“When you’re younger, you play fast because you feel like if you don’t go at a fast pace, the opportunity dwindles,” he said. “Just being able to be patient and outthinking guys and just playing at your own speed is vital for me.”
Michigan’s trip to the Big Ten Tournament in Washington began on a scary note when a plane the team was on slid off the runway during an aborted takeoff. The Wolverines could have been forgiven if basketball wasn’t much of a priority after that, but they arrived in time to beat Illinois the next day. Then came victories over Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
On Wednesday, a week after the plane incident, Walton was a bit reflective.
“Last week was traumatizing, to be completely honest,” Walton said. “I think everybody has a different sense of perspective on life.”
The Wolverines now head into the NCAA Tournament with high hopes, and their first opponent will be an Oklahoma State team that has a talented point guard of its own. Jawun Evans averages 19 points and 6.2 assists.
“He’s Nate Mason,” Beilein said, comparing Evans to Minnesota’s standout point guard. “Probably not as strong, every bit as quick. He’s really going to be a challenge. You can do whatever you want with him, and if it’s a one-on-one situation, he’s going to get to the rim, he’s going to shoot it in — or he’s really an elite passer. And then he’s an elite defender as well.”
If both Walton and Evans are in a groove, this figures to be a matchup of two of the best offensive teams in the tournament.
“They run their offense really well, they’ve got some good players,” Walton said. “That’s typical. Around this time, everybody’s good.”