Just nine days ago, the Michigan men’s basketball team (4-6 Big Ten, 14-9 overall) made its way to the Breslin Center to take on a reeling Michigan State team. The Spartans (6-4, 14-9) had just lost three straight games to Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue, and were in desperate need of a victory to halt their skid.
With that determination on full display, Michigan State put together a 12-2 run with 14:53 left in the second half to pull away from the Wolverines, and ultimately came away with a 70-62 win.
Since that Sunday contest, the tables have turned, and Michigan is now the side in need of a recovery performance. After suffering back-to-back defeats — at the hands of their two biggest rivals, no less — the Wolverines are set for a rematch against the Spartans on Tuesday night.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because the story has already played out once before this conference season.
On Jan. 11, Michigan traveled to Champaign to take on Illinois and left with a humiliating 85-69 defeat as a token for its troubles. Ten days later, the Fighting Illini made the trek to Ann Arbor, eager for a similar result. The Wolverines had other plans.
With one of its most complete defensive performances of the season, Michigan sent Illinois packing with a 66-57 loss — a victory much more lopsided than the score indicates. Three Wolverines — redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson, senior wing Zak Irvin and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. — finished with double-digit points, and Walton pitched in 11 rebounds as well to notch his first double-double of the season.
With its postseason hopes now in serious jeopardy, Michigan will hope that history repeats itself.
“This team is a group of guys that just want to get better,” Walton said. “When adversity hits, it’s another chance to get better.”
In that home-and-home series, the Wolverines demonstrated their ability to make key adjustments quickly. In their initial loss to the Fighting Illini, the Wolverines were bullied inside by Illinois’ trio of big men — center Maverick Morgan and forwards Kipper Nichols and Leron Black — who tallied 16, 13 and 10 points, respectively. But in its ensuing victory, Michigan neutralized the three to the tune of 12 combined points allowed.
For the Wolverines to replicate the feat, their first priority will be to stop Michigan State forward Miles Bridges. Since his return from an ankle injury, the freshman has led the Spartans’ resurgence in conference play. He made his leadership apparent against Michigan, notching a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including a few clutch buckets during his team’s decisive run.
“(He) can go both ways,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He finishes with both hands. And the fact that he’s now an elite 3-point shooter, it’s a really tough guard. So we’re going to have to give a lot of help with him.”
Even if it does turn out to be a battle between the best players on each team, though, Bridges will have stiff competition from Walton. The senior guard has been on fire as of late, tallying 20-point games in each of the Wolverines’ last three contests, including 24 in that losing effort in East Lansing.
The performance against the Spartans featured his season-high point total until he scored 25 against Ohio State, and he’s shooting 52.8 percent from the floor over the three-game stretch — single-handedly willing his team forward.
“There’s some players, and I’ve said this before, they practice until they get it right. Derrick’s practiced so much so he can’t get it wrong,” Beilein said. “He doesn’t practice until he makes it. He practices until he can’t miss.
“He’s become an elite shooter, he’s seeing the floor better. … He’s looking to score and then pass now.”
With just eight games left in the Big Ten season, time is running out for Michigan to turn around its conference fate. Walton has provided an example of the sense of urgency the Wolverines will need to play with moving forward. It will be up to them to follow his lead, starting Tuesday night against the Spartans.
“That’s the resilience that every team has to have,” Beilein said. “We’ve been able to bounce back enough, but we really gotta bounce back now. … We’re not going to survive unless we have this incredible resolve going forward.”