W EST LAFAYETTE – Daniel Horton is the Big Ten Player of the Year.

J. Brady McCollough

That is to say, Horton should be Player of the Year, and the Michigan freshman proved just how much he deserves it last night at Purdue.

In the biggest game Michigan has played in years, Horton put on a clinic.

Time and time again, he wowed the Mackey Arena crowd on his way to a career-high 31 points. More importantly, his play keyed a 78-67 Michigan win that gives the Wolverines – you might want to sit down here – sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with four games to play after an improbable Wisconsin loss at Penn State.

“Obviously, without (Horton’s) play, we’re not having a happy lockerroom right now,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said.

The Wolverines had entered the game worried about how to shut down Purdue’s conference Player of the Year candidate, Willie Deane.

Turns out Deane wasn’t even the best player on the floor last night, let alone in the conference this year.

Horton scored 21 of the Wolverines’ 42 points for a 13-point halftime lead.

He was smooth and confident, and clearly quicker than anyone Purdue threw out there to try and defend him. The Boilermakers rallied in the second half, though, as every desperate team will in a conference game.

But with the lead having dwindled down to 57-52, Horton calmly readjusted his grip and threw Michigan back on top of his young shoulders, drilling a 3-pointer to end Purdue’s comeback.

“We tried to wear him down, put different people on him, play some zone,” Purdue coach Gene Keady said. “But he’s just a great player, we didn’t have an answer for him.”

Of course, you can’t win any game by yourself – let alone a road game against a first-place team.

Senior LaVell Blanchard, hobbled by a sore ankle, still finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, including a clutch 3-pointer with Purdue still trying to mount a late rally.

Guard Lester Abram tossed in 13 points, and forward Bernard Robinson had six points, seven rebounds and four assists despite being in foul trouble.

Even with all of that, though, the Wolverines would not have been in position for a road win – check that – they would not be in position for a Big Ten title without the older-than-his-years play of a cocky freshman from Texas.

Anyone who didn’t know that before yesterday sure found out.

“I was just trying to make plays,” Horton said. “They were denying the wings so hard that I had to do something.”

And because of that, the Wolverines are now in position to do something – win their first Big Ten title since 1986.

Daniel Horton hadn’t even turned two when that happened.

But now he’s all grown up, and last night he served notice once and for all that the Michigan basketball program is back in a big way.

Much of that recovery is no doubt thanks to Horton, who started as the favorite for Michigan’s Freshman of the Year, became the frontrunner for Big Ten Freshman of the Year and now …

Forget Brian Cook, Kirk Penney and Willie Deane. The Big Ten’s Player of the Year dons the Maize and Blue.

“There’s still a lot of basketball to be played,” Amaker said.”But if we keep winning and (Horton) keeps playing the way he’s playing, then why not?”

Amaker might not want to say too much too soon about his freshman or his team’s suddenly very real, very bright, chances at a Big Ten title.

But Amaker’s vote for Big Ten Player of the Year can be found in his list of players he would trade Horton for:

“No one.”

Chris Burke can be reached at chrisbur@umich.edu.

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