NEW YORK CITY — Just over three minutes into the opening half of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 2K Classic game against Marquette, Derrick Walton Jr. picked up his second foul. It was part of a string of uncharacteristic errors made by the senior guard that forced him to spend a majority of the first half on the bench.
Behind Walton, the Wolverines had overcome a pair of first-half deficits against Howard and IUPUI last weekend. But when it became a reality Walton wouldn’t have that same impact against the Golden Eagles on Friday, the rest of the team did more than its part to make sure the senior’s absence wasn’t felt.
After being tied 15-15, the Wolverines completely overwhelmed Marquette for the remaining 13 minutes of the first half, outscoring the Golden Eagles by 24 in that stretch en route to a 79-61 win.
With freshman guard Xavier Simpson and junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman leading Michigan’s backcourt, the Wolverines built up their advantage without Walton heading into the second half.
“We have a next man up mentality,” said senior guard Zak Irvin. “I think that showed. We knew it was going to be tough once Derrick went out with two fouls. But I love that (Xavier) came on — you know, kind of first road game, neutral game whatever you want to call it. We didn’t miss a beat. We kept it going forward, and I think that was huge for us.”
Abdur-Rahkman was aggressive driving to the basket all night, scoring 15 points and going a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line. His scoring took the pressure off Simpson, who was forced to play more than he previously had in his college career.
If anyone embodied the efficiency Michigan displayed all night, it was Irvin. The senior ended up leading all scorers with 16 points. His 5-for-9 shooting fell just above the Wolverines’ 51 percent conversion from the field Thursday. Irvin’s offensive consistency, combined with seven rebounds and five assists, was exactly what Michigan expects out of its seasoned veteran. Irvin’s teammates followed his suit, and that powered the Wolverines all night.
“I think we all came out pretty amped up,” Irvin said. “Obviously playing in the Garden is a great experience for all of us, and we knew it was going to kind of be like a home game for us, with all the fans that travel and come and support us, so I think that’s what got us off to the start we had.”
Wilson and senior forward Mark Donnal built off strong outings in Michigan’s opening two games and put together a pair of complete performances. After being handed his first start of his career, Wilson had his third double-digit rebounding night in as many games, grabbing 12 boards.
Donnal, along with sophomore forward Moritz Wagner, outsized the Golden Eagles at the post. The pair combined for 24 points and four rebounds, all while giving the Wolverines a size advantage they had been lacking in similar matchups in years past. Both bigs also showed off their perimeter abilities, each making a shot from behind the arc.
“(Wagner’s) more seasoned. DJ’s more seasoned. It’s a huge lift for us,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Really those two guys were non-factors for us last season. It’s more about what they do as they develop.”
Despite being benched in light of Wilson’s emergence, redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson came on and looked as confident as ever doing what he does best. Robinson was 3-for-5 from 3-point range, boosting Michigan’s offense with 10 points. He helped the Wolverines shoot an impressive 39 percent from behind the arc.
Michigan will have just a few hours to admire its win before it takes on Southern Methodist in the 2K Classic final on Friday. The Wolverines not only hope to close out their first tournament of the season with a championship, but also to get revenge over a team that has handed them a loss in each of the previous two seasons.
“This’ll be a great, great barometer for us right now to see where we are,” Beilein said. “We’re trying to win a championship. We’d love to win this championship, get out to a 4-0 start. But we’re playing an NCAA Tournament team (in) SMU.”