Derrick Walton joined Jalen Rose and Gary Grant in the 1000-400-400 club tonight and had fun doing it. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
"I think he's playing the best basketball of his career," said Tom Izzo. "And I think this game was the most important thing in his life."
Derrick Walton wasn't going to let his team lose this one. His teammates, in a pleasant surprise, matched the near-manic effort Walton has played with for the last month.
"Before the game the guys just really banded together and told me they really wanted to get this one for me," said Walton. "They played like it, and I'm really appreciative of it all. Everybody played their heart out."
An increasingly impossible to predict Michigan squad blew the game open midway through the first half, ripping off a 32-10 run with highlights aplenty, including a DJ Wilson posterization of Kenny Goins and Duncan Robinson capping the half with a walk-off triple from Caris Corner. Moe Wagner dominated his matchup with Nick Ward, hitting all five of his first-half attempts and goading Ward into a Grayson Allen-style technical foul. Michigan forced 12 first-half turnovers, three of them shot-clock violations. Walton continued his spectacular run of play with 12 points, three boards, and seven assists by halftime. The second half was academic.
"Can't say enough about Derrick Walton right now, of just the tranformation in the last month," said John Beilein.
Wilson, Simpson, and MAAR all came through with big plays. [Campredon]
Walton's young charge also looked transformed. Xavier Simpson entered tonight with two made field goals in Big Ten play. Tonight, working within what Beilein said was a simplified package of plays, he played with newfound confidence, scoring seven points on 3-for-4 shooting and dishing out two assists in the best 12 minutes of his young career. Like his teammates, Simpson played with something extra for his senior captain from Detroit.
"This is [Walton's] last time playing Michigan State, so for him to get that win means a lot," said Simpson.
Michigan's dominance extended to almost every facet of the game. They went 22-for-32 from inside the arc, buoyed by Wagner's skilled play around the hoop and strong finishes from the guards. They shot 10-for-21 on three-pointers, led by a perfect 3-for-3 mark from Walton. They played with great defensive intensity, forcing 21 turnovers and holding MSU under 48% from the field. They kept the Spartans off the boards. And, yes, they played with more emotion; Wilson's technical stood out as a positive, while Ward's was very much the opposite.
A happy squad. [Campredon]
"Today was, like, perfect," Beilein said of the team's mental edge. "They were right there. They were angry. They were junkyard dogs—that was the whole idea, the picture of a doberman that I wanted them to go out and play like, I think it was a doberman but he had big teeth."
Beilein, like the rest of us, admitted he's never sure when the team is going to play with that bite. Tonight, in a rivalry game they had to win to keep any realistic shot at a tourney bid, they had it going full force. Whether it will carry over to Sunday's game at Indiana is anyone's guess. It's a start, at least, and if the whole team can continue to rise up to the standard Walton is setting, they may just make the late run they need.
"We don't think we've played as well as our talent shows," said Walton. "We've got seven games left and we can still do something special."
DJ Wilson led a blue-collar effort for Michigan today. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
After Illinois blew out Michigan in Champaign ten days ago, Illini center Maverick Morgan described Michigan as a "white collar" team.
When the Wolverines arrived at Crisler for today's rematch, their blue road uniforms were hanging in the lockers—a request the players made, according to John Beilein. If the message weren't already abundantly clear, Billy Donlon made sure it hit home.
"He wrote 'street fight' on our wall with a sharpie," said DJ Wilson. "We were like, 'you know you can't take that off,' and he was like, 'that's the point.' His energy was contagious and I think it showed in the first half."
Wilson, in particular, took that message to heart. He scored 19 points (7/10 FG), grabbed six of his seven rebounds on the offensive end, immediately finishing a couple with emphatic tip-slams. He also broke down the Illinois zone with five assists and contributed a block and some more altered shots to Michigan's strong defensive effort.
"He's got to get in there," Beilein said of Wilson. "One of our zone things was he was not leaving the paint so he could rebound, and stay in there instead of stretching [out to the perimeter]."
"He can really shoot, but he's got to understand that if we're going to win, if he's going to play at another level, he's got to mix it up inside. He's very receptive to that coaching."
This afternoon, it showed. Wilson attempted eight of his ten shots from inside the arc after shooting only four two-pointers over the last two games. His six offensive boards matched the career-high he set in the conference opener at Iowa.
Wilson, Walton, and Irvin all produced at the rim. [Campredon]
Unlike the first Illinois game, when he also had 19 points, Wilson got plenty of help. Derrick Walton posted 13 points and 11 rebounds, all on defense, for his first double-double of the season and sixth of his career. Zak Irvin wasn't exactly efficient, needing 15 field goal attempts to get his 15 points, but he repeatedly broke down the Illini defense and got to the basket. Most importantly, the team-wide defensive effort was a night-and-day contrast from the last time around: after allowing 1.42 points per possession in Champaign, Michigan held them to 0.89 PPP at Crisler and forced 17 turnovers.
After Michigan followed up their awful defensive showing at Illinois with a shootout win over Nebraska in which neither team could stop the other, there was good reason to fear that this team would embrace having to out-gun every team they faced from here on out. Today's win, however, marked the second consecutive game in which the Wolverines played much-improved defense. The final score isn't indicative of the flow of the game, either; Michigan held a comfortable lead throughout and led by 21 with 5:57 to play before packing in the offense a little prematurely.
Morgan, who scored 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the first game, mustered a six-point, three-turnover performance this afternoon; in 22 minutes, he had a +/- of -22, the worst mark of any player by 13 points.
"We won't have a painter come in until next year, at least," said Beilein.
For the second straight game, Michigan obliterated a completely overmatched foe. The Wolverines jumped out to a 19-2 lead against Maryland Eastern Shore and didn't let up from there. They led 49-22 at the half with as many three-pointers (8) as the Hawks had field goals. They finished with 28 assists on 32 baskets, led by a career-high ten dishes from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who entered the game within 90 seconds of tipoff after being replaced in the starting lineup by Duncan Robinson. (Update: Beilein said a clerical error caused Robinson's unexpected start.)
Derrick Walton had a near-flawless performance, scoring 21 points on ten shot equivalents with six rebounds, five assists, a steal, and no turnovers. UMES had no answer for DJ Wilson and Moe Wagner, who combined to go 10-for-11 from the field. Xavier Simpson had four assists and three steals. Ibi Watson had two dunks, one off an assist from Sean Lonergan. Former student manager Fred Wright-Jones made a three to send the bench into hysterics.
Michigan has one more non-conference game on Thursday against Furman before Big Ten play begins on New Year's Day at Iowa. While the last two games have been fun, its arrival will be welcome.