Michigan’s basketball team, led by two strong seniors, was expected to return to the NCAA tournament this year, for the seventh time in coach John Beilein’s tenth year. But after the Wolverines dropped three of their first four Big Ten games, few would have taken that bet.
They weren’t just losing. They were losing ugly. When they played a weak Illinois squad, they all but rolled over. Afterward, an Illinois player said Michigan played
“White collar basketball” – which is not exactly a compliment in a league generally considered the most physical in the country.
Coach Beilein himself said Michigan didn’t have any “junkyard dogs out there.”
The defense stunk, the effort was weak, the team was soft. Some folks started seriously wondering if Beilein would be fired.
But that’s when senior captain Derrick Walton Junior called a “players’ only” meeting to straighten the team out. Walton later explained to a reporter that there were only so many games left, and he thought their team was better than the ones they’d be losing to, and it was time to show that.
The next day, Michigan beat a mediocre Nebraska team – but they beat ‘em. Michigan then battled the Big Ten’s top team, Wisconsin, before losing a close one. But they were playing defense now, crashing the boards for rebounds, and diving for loose balls. They were getting tougher.
The Wolverines proved it in their rematch against Illinois – the team that called them “white collar.” Even though Michigan was playing at home, they decided to wear their navy blue road uniforms – and there was a message in that. They played like blue-collar workers, beating up on Illinois, then blowing out Indiana.
The difference was obvious, and so was the leader: Derrick Walton. He was running the floor, hitting his shots, passing with aplomb, and even grabbing rebounds, though half the time he was the shortest guy.
Even after a dispiriting loss to a weak Ohio State team, Walton picked his teammates back up again. He led them to a huge win over Michigan State, prompting MGoBlog.com’s Ace Anbender to say, “If the whole team can continue to rise up to the standard Walton is setting, they may just make the late run they need.”
They next traveled to Indiana, where Michigan had won exactly once in 18 tries. No matter. Walton’s Wolverines dominated the Hoosiers from start to finish. Walton became only the third Wolverine to notch 1,000 points, 400 assists, and 400 rebounds. The others were Gary Grant and Jalen Rose, two of Michigan’s greatest players. When they arrived in Ann Arbor, Grant and Rose were already big national stars – and they left even bigger ones. Walton came out of nowhere, but he’s now at their level.
Last night, against Wisconsin, Walton’s Wolverines beat the Big Ten’s best team, proving they’re for real, and all but wrapping up another NCAA tournament bid.
Whatever the Wolverines do down the stretch, two things have been established: they can’t be accused of playing white-collar basketball anymore, and Derrick Walton Junior is one of the best leaders Michigan basketball has ever seen.
Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including his most recent book, "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football," which is now out in paperback. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.