RALEIGH, N.C. — The Michigan men’s basketball team was finally starting to roll in its Big Ten/ACC Challenge showdown against North Carolina State, but on the Wolverines’ bench, Derrick Walton Jr.’s face was buried in a towel.
The junior guard had just helped the Wolverines break an early tie with a 10-0 scoring run, but after Wolfpack forward Maverick Rowan ended the drought with a 3-pointer, Walton came up grabbing his left ankle in pain.
Walton — who missed Michigan’s final 12 games last season with a toe injury in the same foot — hid his face during a brief examination on the bench before slowly limping to the locker room moments later. He was officially diagnosed with a slightly sprained ankle and did not return for the second half, leaving the Wolverines without their floor general.
Fortunately for Michigan, the rest of its offense came ready to play to the tune of a 66-59 victory, even without Walton’s direction.
Just 11 days after his 29 points weren’t enough to down Xavier at Crisler Center, junior guard Caris LeVert proved the offense’s success could stem from his own performance. LeVert essentially ran the point for most of the second half, and his 18 points, seven assists and nine rebounds were all team highs. More importantly, his poise and persistence — perhaps best exemplified by his buzzer-beating jumper to end the first half — kept the Wolverines from taking their feet off the gas.
“Coach came to me and told me I was gonna be the lead guard in the second half,” LeVert said. “Derrick’s our brother out there, so we wanted to get the win for him. He played so well in the first half offensively and defensively, we knew (the rest of us) had to play well in that game.”
Redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson showed he truly does possess the same 3-point shooting prowess as former Wolverine Nik Stauskas, and that he can take over a close game with his shooting.
Robinson knocked down five of his seven 3-point attempts on his way to 17 points, including a huge triple with just under seven minutes remaining to extend a narrow four-point lead to seven.
“When (N.C. State) pushed hard, we needed somebody to step up,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “(That last 3) was probably the only bad shot Duncan took, but it was one of those, ‘No, no, no … that’s my guy (after he made it).’ “
LeVert may have been the de facto point guard for the Wolverines in the second half, but both sophomore Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and senior Spike Albrecht were needed for meaningful minutes.
Abdur-Rahkman is no stranger to being unexpectedly thrust into action thanks to last year’s injury problems, and though he didn’t light up the box score, his experience showed in his defensive matchup with N.C. State leading scorer Anthony “Cat” Barber.
Albrecht, meanwhile, was dressed in sweatpants for the first half in keeping with Beilein’s stated plan to focus on rehabbing from his offseason hip surgeries. But after Walton went down, Albrecht came out in uniform for the second half. The ailing senior played just five minutes, but he punctuated his brief time on the floor by lobbing a perfect alley-oop to LeVert.
At least for tonight, the Wolverines proved they could survive a tough road matchup without a true point guard thanks to stellar play from LeVert and Robinson. But with Walton’s health now up in the air — he will be reevaluated before Michigan’s game Saturday against Houston Baptist — and Albrecht’s road to recovery still dragging on, only time will tell if that offensive productivity is sustainable.