Minh Doan: Coming full circle
WASHINGTON — It was a moment that Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin had been anticipating for over three years.
Standing on the stage at midcourt of the Verizon Center, holding up the Big Ten Tournament trophy, they were finally in the place they’d been waiting most of their careers to be.
Three years ago, in 2014, the two then-freshmen were in the same position, celebrating at midcourt after the Michigan men’s basketball team won a Big Ten regular-season title.
That was their first time hanging a banner at Crisler Center.
Now, three years later, Walton and Irvin will come full circle and hang another one after beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament title game Sunday afternoon.
It was the culmination of four tough years that put both of them through quite a bit of adversity.
Irvin and Walton both came to Ann Arbor as highly touted recruits expected to continue the momentum set forth by the “Fresh Five” during their NCAA Tournament run in 2013.
Irvin was the No. 29 recruit in the country and Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. Walton was the No. 44 recruit in the nation and a finalist for Michigan’s Mr. Basketball.
Together, many expected the duo to flourish from the start and keep Michigan at the top of the Big Ten for years.
And for a season, they did just that. Walton started as a freshman point guard while Irvin came off the bench as a shooter, a role similar to what junior forward Duncan Robinson plays now, as the Wolverines won the Big Ten regular-season title and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
But then things started to unravel. Three players — Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary — left for the NBA, leaving behind a depleted Michigan roster to pick up the pieces.
Thrust into bigger roles on the team, Walton and Irvin couldn’t quite put the pieces together.
With future NBA Draft pick Caris LeVert out for most of the season, and Walton injured down the stretch, Irvin was forced to become Michigan’s primary scorer.
But Michigan coach John Beilein called the season a big year for the duo’s growth.
“Zak became a better player out of that,” Beilein said. “He really became a better player, and Derrick has a new appreciation for the game because he was out.”
It was a trying time for the two, but also an important period of growth: Irvin became a smarter basketball player, evident in his play in Washington this past weekend, while Walton looked a like a player possessed who appreciated the moment given to him this weekend.
After rough sophomore years, Walton and Irvin came back with a year of adversity under their belt. Once again, LeVert went down with an injury midway through the season, leaving Walton and Irvin again to pick up the pieces.
And for the most part, the duo did well. They both averaged about 12 points and led Michigan to an NCAA Tournament appearance before bowing out to Notre Dame in the second round.
But Beilein didn’t believe they were ready for the moment just yet. They got too complacent, happy to just make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
“The worst thing that happened to us last year was making the NCAA Tournament,” Beilein said. “We made it, and I don’t think it toughened us up enough.”
While their sophomore year was about developing their play, the duo’s junior year was all about developing their drive and desire.
Heading into their senior years, taking in all the lessons they’d learned so far, they were hungrier than ever.
“This past summer, I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder than I have in my entire life, and I wanted this so bad,” Walton said. “I just wanted everything that comes with winning so bad … and being able to come through for my team, that’s all I really care about.”
Beilein noticed it as well, citing that as the season progressed, he noticed Walton and Irvin taking the lesson they learned junior year about being complacent and took it upon themselves to make sure the team was ready for the postseason.
And, man, did they come to Washington prepared for the postseason.
One thing that has been consistent throughout Walton’s and Irvin’s four years at Michigan is the number of doubters that have come from outside of the team.
For Irvin, it was the thought that he had the affinity to take too many bad shots. And for Walton, the chirp was that he was too small to play point guard and he was too much of a passer.
It’s flak that they admit they look at, whether on social media or in the newspapers, but they’ve also gotten good at keeping it from affecting their play.
“Both of them have taken a lot of flak from a lot of different people,” said senior forward Sean Lonergan. “They just block it out better than just about anybody. They stay confident in themselves and this team, and they have guys who won’t let that waver.”
Added senior guard Andrew Dakich: “The thing that stands out to me is their mentality. They could probably fade away if things go wrong, but they’ve been consistent with the energy they’ve brought all year.”
And this week, the duo laid most of that criticism to bed, maybe for good, with their performances.
Walton and Irvin were both phenomenal leading the Wolverines through a grueling four games in four days that saw both of them come up big on numerous occasions.
The duo made clutch play after clutch play. Whether it was a dazzling assist, a crucial drive to the hoop or an important 3-pointer, they did it all when their team needed them the most.
As roommates and best friends, Walton and Irvin talk often about the legacy they want to leave behind at Michigan.
With the duo leading the Wolverines to their first Big Ten Tournament title since 1998 (one that was later vacated), it’s already pretty clear. They’ve come full circle from making it to the title game their freshman year and getting blown out by Michigan State.
But if their junior year has taught them anything, they’re hungry for more.
The duo will get another chance to come full circle with the NCAA Tournament, when they travel to Indianapolis to take on Oklahoma State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
If Michigan fans remember correctly, Indianapolis is also where the Wolverines lost a heartbreaker to Kentucky on Aaron Harrison’s last-second triple in the Elite Eight in 2014.
Three years later, Walton and Irvin will travel back to Indianapolis for redemption.
And if this season has taught us anything, they’ll be ready for it.
Minh Doan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @_minhdoan.