LINCOLN — Amid a nearly perfect game, there was a moment Sunday night when Michigan’s half-court set was launched into disarray.
It was certainly a rare case in Lincoln, as the Wolverines dismantled the Cornhuskers in front of a crowd of 14,071. Michigan’s 36-point victory marked Nebraska’s worst losing margin at home in the 121-year existence of the program.
But it happened nonetheless, largely because Derrick Walton Jr. was playing too well.
The offensive sequence blew up because Michigan coach John Beilein had called one play. Walton had called another. Half the team followed its coach’s orders, the other half followed its senior guard’s lead. But given all the issues that plagued Michigan early in its season, there were worse things that could have happened for the Wolverines as they rounded out their regular season.
“That’s a good problem to have right now,” Beilein said. “That was Trey Burke-like out there, the way (Walton) just controlled the tempo.”
The Trey Burke comparison — it has followed Walton for four years now. He has never embraced it. Neither have his teammates. And Beilein hasn’t either.
Except there was one big difference Sunday night. This time, when Beilein drew the comparison himself, it was about what Walton is, not what the Michigan fan base has, arguably unrealistically, wanted him to be.
As the Wolverines prepared to board the bus to the airport, Pinnacle Bank Arena had long been emptied. The only people that remained in the stands were the custodians, cleaning up the final traces of what had been a long game for the Nebraska basketball team.
And then there was a small conglomerate of maize and blue standing at the end of one of the arena’s tunnels. That’s where Walton stood, talking to the members of families that had made the trip to Lincoln, basking in the aura of what had been one hell of a night. He was all smiles, and rightfully so.
Michigan capped off its Big Ten season with a win that looked like the Wolverines were playing against their scout team. And boy did it get ugly.
Walton was the concertmaster of it all, finishing with 18 points on 5-for-10 shooting and 16 assists to break the single-game assist record held by Gary Grant since 1987. The performance earned him a nod as the Co-Big Ten Player of the Week.
“It means a lot to me,” Walton said of etching his name into the program record book. “I’m a guy who loves to make other people better. So to see my guys happy making shots and me being the guy as one of the reasons why is a great feeling.”
It has been a season in which saying Walton is helping his team would be an understatement. Over the Wolverines’ seven-game stretch in the month of February, Walton averaged 17.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists while notching two double-doubles and leading Michigan to a 5-2 record that could have just as easily been a perfect 7-0.
As Beilein described, if it were football, his senior guard would be calling half of the plays out of the huddle.
Quite simply, Walton has been playing like a man who knows that his days are numbered, and that the number of those days are largely dependent on his own performance. Sunday night was the pinnacle of that.
Roughly two weeks ago, Beilein stood at the podium in a state of retrospection. He admitted that he didn’t think there was someone on Michigan’s roster that he could give the ball to and tell them to go get themselves a bucket.
He used to have two players like that. He recalled the 2012-13 season, when he had the freedom to let Burke and Mitch McGary dictate games in their closing minutes. For the majority of this season, Beilein didn’t have that option. On Sunday night, that may have changed.
In the bowels of Pinnacle Bank Arena, as he was reminded of his comments about the Wolverines’ lack of a go-to scorer in light of what Walton had just done to the Cornhuskers, a grin cracked over his face and he had five words that said it all.
“It looked like it tonight.”