WASHINGTON — It started in East Lansing.
Before the confetti falling from the rafters, before the practice uniforms and before the plane accident on the runway at Willow Run Airport, the Wolverines had a date with the Spartans.
On Jan. 29, Michigan entered the Breslin Center, and the final scoreline didn’t do the tale justice. Michigan was dominated, manhandled, embarrassed. Pick one, they all apply.
Or just take Duncan Robinson’s word for it.
“We went in there and kind of got punched in the mouth to be honest with you,” he said.
Fifteen Wolverines went down for the count. One swallowed his teeth and kept fighting.
You can probably guess who that is.
He’s the same guy who poured in a game-high 22 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished out seven assists to take a Big Ten Tournament championship trophy from Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon.
He’s the same guy who scored a career-high 29 while pitching in nine rebounds and five assists the day prior to get Michigan there in the first place.
He’s Derrick Walton Jr., the man who changed the course of the Wolverines’ season in the way he has always wanted to, but never realized he was.
Walton has never desired the role of the vocal leader. That spot had Zak Irvin’s name on it. For a while, that relationship functioned harmoniously. That is, until it didn’t.
Now, Walton doesn’t shy away from opening his mouth — far from it.
“Being emotional is fine, but just not bashing guys,” Walton said. “I know I get on Moe (Wagner) all the time. I just cuss him out for no reason.”
Still, his entire career he simply wanted his teammates to watch him and follow suit. No poetic pregame speeches, no bull****. Go out. Compete.
“That’s all I’ve been taught to do,” he said.
Little did he know it at the time, but he finally got his wish in East Lansing. He scored a game-high 24 points and took a beating doing so, going to the line 15 times and missing only once. And the Wolverines still lost.
The light bulbs didn’t just go on, Walton turned on a couple of floodlights.
“We were down probably 10 or 11 and Derrick was just keeping us in the game,” Robinson said. “He hit a couple shots where he was really just doing it from playing hard.
“He was just making plays, and you could just tell by the way he was playing that he was doing everything he could, leaving everything out there just to make something happen, and I think everyone … acknowledged, ‘Look, if this guy just did this on his own, and kept us in that game, what can happen if we collectively all follow him and really all 16 of us do it every single day in practice and games?’ ”
What can happen? Michigan’s new trophy is the answer.
But it’s not just the tournament championship trophy, but how the Wolverines got it.
On Jan. 17, when Michigan faced the Badgers for the first time in Madison, the Wolverines surrendered a six-point lead with roughly six minutes left, as Bronson Koenig spearheaded a personal 10-0 run.
Plain and simple, Michigan couldn’t defend, so it couldn’t capture the upset.
With 6:19 left in Sunday’s championship game, Michigan found itself in an eerily similar situation. Michigan coach John Beilein called a timeout.
Behind a 3-pointer from Vitto Brown and a breakaway layup from Zak Showalter, the Badgers had cut the Wolverines’ 11-point lead to six in 30 seconds.
It was either buckle down or go home empty-handed.
Koenig went 0-for-7 in the frame. Wisconsin made just three field goals in the final six minutes. The Wolverines could defend, and they captured a lot more than an upset.
After the game, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson was asked if this team likes defending.
“I think we love it now,” he said.
Yeah, this is the same team that gave up over 80 points three times through its first five conference games.
But Walton’s performance in East Lansing changed that.
“I think with the Michigan State game, at State, D-Walt really took over,” Wilson said. “And we look back at how many defensive lapses we had and how close we were to winning that game if we just had a few more stops down the stretch.
“I think that’s one (game) that everybody really bought in. From then on, it’s been working real good for us.”
Now, as the Wolverines prepare to face Oklahoma State — the No. 1 team in adjusted offensive efficiency and one of just four teams above Michigan in that category according to Ken Pomeroy —in the NCAA Tournament, much like Sunday afternoon, they are going to need to win a game with defense and a whole lot of heart.
Luckily for them, Walton supplied these 15 with that a long time ago.
Kevin Santo can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.