A little over a month ago, Michigan hit rock bottom.
The Wolverines had just lost to Big Ten bottom-dweller Ohio State, and looked completely shook while doing so.
But following the game, senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. stood in the corner of the Crisler Center pressroom looking as poised as ever.
He knew his team had just hit its lowest point, but realized things could only get better.
“If what we’re going through at this point spearheads a run and us taking the next step in some places we lagged in, then I’m all for it,” Walton said following the Ohio State loss. “I’m more so excited. I think it’ll make it a better story.”
And what a story it has become, as the Wolverines have done what looked impossible over a month ago and improbable just four days ago.
They’ve won a Big Ten championship.
There were a lot of questions asked of Michigan following that Ohio State loss. Could Walton and senior wing Zak Irvin put together complete performances in the same game? Could the Wolverines’ defense get out of the basement of almost every statistical category of the Big Ten? Did Michigan players overall have a winning mentality?
“The loss at home to Ohio State really opened our eyes,” Walton said on Sunday. “I think we played well but we just layed down and that was the biggest moment for us as a team. I knew after that very moment guys took it to heart, and really wanted to make the key adjustments to be successful for the rest of the season. We did that, and that’s why I was so confident going into the rest of the season.”
Over the past four days, the Wolverines have turned the weaknesses present against the Buckeyes into strengths. And that all culminated in Michigan’s title-winning 71-56 victory over Wisconsin.
The most suspect of all those questions was Michigan’s defense, but after watching today, one would never know the struggles the Wolverines once faced while defending.
Michigan opened the second half on an 11-2 run to get out to a 10-point lead. That stretch included a 5:19 Wisconsin scoring drought and denying the Badgers from getting points from the field for over eight minutes. The Wolverines also were struggling to find points as the second half wore on, but their defense helped Michigan maintain a comfortable lead over that period.
“Especially in the second half, we all came together and connected well on all cylinders on the defensive end,” said redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson. “Even when they brought in within six, we were able to get crucial stops and crucial rebounds. I think that’s really what sealed the deal.”
But if there was ever a team built to respond to those types of runs, it’s the Badgers. Guard Bronson Koenig and forward Ethan Happ combined to score Wisconsin’s last 12 points of the half, reducing the Wolverines’ lead to only one heading into intermission.
Again in the second half, the Badgers began chipping away at an 11-point Michigan lead slowly but with the sort of poise their core group of seniors have become known for over the past few seasons. The Badgers would get within six of the Wolverines, but Michigan had a response every time they were closing in.
Irvin and redshirt junior wing Duncan Robinson each hit massive three-pointers when Wisconsin looked like it had found the slightest bit of momentum to get on a run.
“I just feel lucky my teammates had that sort of confidence in me,” Robinson said. “I hadn’t really gotten any clean looks in the game. But to get that shot and knock it in was a special moment.”
When the Badgers put on a full-court press for the final three minutes of the game, Wilson found junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman for a slam that brought the fans at the Verizon Center to their feet and all but shut the door on Wisconsin. Wilson was essential in the Wolverines maintaining their lead down the stretch, scoring 12 of his 17 points in the second half, while shutting down a first team all-Big Ten player in Happ defensively too.
Walton and Irvin were Michigan’s primary drivers on both ends all game long. Irvin was efficient scoring points early on, mixing up cuts to the hoop through the Wisconsin defense and his signature mid-range jumper. He’s put together one of the most consistent runs of his career through the conference tournament, and finished Sunday with 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
But no performance could compare to what Walton was doing single-handedly. The senior earned assists on the Wolverines’ first two scores of the half, and midway through the first, went on a personal 9-0 run, hitting three shots from beyond the arc on three consecutive possessions to give Michigan its initial 10-point lead.
Most importantly, Walton quarterbacked his offense through a tough stretch in the second half, and put the ball in his teammates’ hands. His 22 point, six rebound, seven assist outing will go down as the final jewel that helped him earn the crown of the tournament’s most outstanding player.
The Wolverines leave Washington as the Big Ten’s highest seeded team to win the conference tournament, and, most importantly to them, will be raising a banner at Crisler Center next fall. More than anything, they have a trophy with their names engraved in Michigan basketball lore for what they proved over the past five days.
“I wanted them to imagine what it would be like for them to walk into that beautiful William Davidson Player Development Center and see that trophy and tell people about not the four games, the five days, and be able to tell them that story,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Because that’s part of their legacy together, all 16 of those guys.”