Kevin Santo: Walton's day
Derrick Walton Jr. was dealt the royal flush in his first year at Michigan. He was the starting point guard on a team that featured future NBA draft picks Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III.
That team won the Wolverines’ first outright Big Ten Championship since 1986. Then they went to the Elite Eight, before coming one shot shy of the Final Four.
On that team, as former Michigan center Jordan Morgan put it, “We just wanted him to come in and be Derrick Walton.”
Saturday night, more than three years later, that Derrick Walton was on full display. The senior finished with 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting, 11 rebounds and five assists to notch his eighth career double-double en route to an 82-70 upset over No. 14 Purdue on Senior Night at Crisler Center. More than that, though, he showed a side of himself that seldom came out for much of his career.
“He’s really become the guard that I think he always wanted to be, and we always wanted him to be,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It’s not that he’s been bad in between. He’s such a great unselfish player, it was always about the team. I think he convinced himself that ‘If it’s really about the team, then I need to do more.’”
Convincing himself of such may sound easy for a man who has always showcased an ability to score. In reality, it’s anything but. For four years, Walton has been the quickest to deflect the praise toward his team following a win like Saturday night’s. He’s been the first to be the martyr, taking accountability for the losses that have stung the most — and there have sure been plenty of them since that run to the Elite Eight his freshman year.
That’s no façade. It’s not a good face put on for the public to see.
“That’s him,” Irvin said. “That’s his personality.”
When Morgan said they wanted Walton to just be Walton, it was undoubtedly true. But even Morgan may not have realized what that meant at the time. After all, it took four years for Walton himself to figure that out. That personality — the one Irvin references as the reason his friend has been so willing to accept blame and reject praise — is so selfless it was forced to become selfish.
Even at the beginning of this year, with three years of starting under his belt and a captaincy all but guaranteed, Walton was hesitant to call this his team. He still is. But after Saturday night, it unequivocally is.
After all, Walton is the one who kept the Wolverines’ upset hopes alive. With 8:15 left in the second half, the Boilermakers notched a 15-4 run in roughly three minutes. A once-22-point lead had been trimmed to 11, and Michigan’s offense was stalling.
But with the momentum swinging firmly in Purdue’s favor, Walton took the burden on his shoulders, driving hard down the lane before absorbing contact and finishing with a trip to the line as an added bonus. He converted from the charity stripe to increase Michigan’s cushion to 14 points.
Then came another run. Purdue’s Vincent Edwards knocked down two threes and added another jumper to score eight unanswered points and cut the Wolverines’ lead to six with just over two minutes remaining.
It was time for Michigan to sink or swim, and as the shot clock dwindled down with the ball in Walton’s hands, it sure as hell looked like the Wolverines were about to take on a lot of water.
But with a defender draped all over him after he picked up his dribble, Walton pivoted and found daylight, elevating underneath an outstretched arm to nail a circus shot from beyond the arc and give Michigan a 76-67 lead with 1:43 remaining.
From there, the Boilermakers were forced to foul. And in a fitting manner, Walton was the last one who headed to the line, receiving a standing ovation on his walk from Michigan’s backcourt before converting two free throws to put the game to bed.
His on-court performance should come as no surprise, as Walton has willed his team through a stretch in which the Wolverines have won five of their last six — including upsets over Purdue and then-No. 11 Wisconsin that have all but punched Michigan’s ticket to the Big Dance. The off-court demeanor shouldn’t come as a shock either. That’s been there for a long time now.
But the symbiotic coexistence of the two — that has taken four years to come to fruition.
At the end of the night, with the game in the books, Beilein handed the floor over to Walton and Irvin.
The Wolverines delayed their trip to the locker room, waiting to hear their two senior captains speak. The fans remained too, awaiting an address from the two men they have watched don the maize and blue for four years.
Walton spoke first, keeping his statement short and brief, before concluding with a sentiment of gratitude.
“Personally, I just want to thank you guys for sticking with me through these four years.”
Roughly 10 minutes later, as Walton addressed the media, it was more of the same. He hadn’t taken the personal time to think about it being his last game at Crisler Center. He didn’t believe that would sink until his final practice before the Big Ten Tournament. He was simply thankful.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity I was given, and I just want to make the most of it.”
And to those on the outside looking in, Walton has done just that.
“He’s what college basketball is about,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “Keep improving, keep getting better, good leader, stuck it out. That’s what it’s about.”