"The end crowns all. And that old common arbitrator, Time, will one day end it."
In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the Trojan hero Hector gives an existential twist to the Latin phrase finis coronat opus: the end crowns the work. The original is a more forgiving statement; when a task is completed, the finished product justifies the effort. Hector, preparing for a fatal battle with Achilles, adds that cruelest of elements: time. Only so much of his fate rests in his own hands, for there are forces present no person can control.
[left: Patrick Barron; right and center: Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Michigan lost at Illinois on January 11th, falling to 11-6 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten. Their November dismantlings of Marquette and SMU had gone from promising augurs to cruel teases. The offense was merely good, the defense abominable. When the Illini's Maverick Morgan described Michigan as a "white collar" program, it rankled because it rang true.
Derrick Walton didn't spend his summer in the gym for this. He called a team meeting. When asked about the timing, the senior captain answered with his usual calm, but his words communicated a sense of urgency.
"It’s only so many games left.
"We’re hitting the mid stretch and the back stretch is coming soon. It’s time to make some noise. I feel like we are a ton better team than we’ve showed and our record doesn’t show it. I think we’re a lot better than we’re playing and guys are ready to show that."
In only so many games, Walton redefined his legacy from program guy to program legend, led a storybook turnaround, and shifted the perception of the coach whose offense he helped reshape.
[Hit THE JUMP.]
In the beginning, Walton had the luxury of growing into his role. While he arrived at Michigan as a top-50 recruit with high expectations, the program already boasted a prodigious sophomore class featuring Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Spike Albrecht, plus a senior leader in Jordan Morgan. His backup had been the unexpected star of a national championship game. Walton didn't need to be Trey Burke. He didn't need to be Darius Morris. Being in the right place and hitting open shots would suffice.
Walton was quite good at those things. He showed the potential for more, most notably when he scored a season-high 19 points and made 8-of-9 free throws down the stretch to secure a rivalry win in East Lansing. He exuded the confidence of a future star.
The emphasis was on "future." Walton mostly served as a spot-up shooter while Stauskas and LeVert piloted the team to the Elite Eight. He scored in double digits only once over Michigan's last 13 games. Kentucky limited him to three points in the season-ending loss. Nobody blamed Walton; he was, after all, a role player.
Stauskas, Robinson, and McGary departed for the NBA, thrusting Walton into a bigger role as a sophomore. The second-year breakouts of his point guard predecessors, Morris and Burke, set a high standard, and Walton's first year gave little reason to believe he wouldn't measure up to it. As he developed, he could still rely on LeVert to run much of the offense.
The season went awry almost from the very start. After Walton scored 15 or more in each of the first three games, he injured his toe in a loss to Villanova. Although he only sat out one game, the pain lingered, sapping his ability to leap and finish at the rim. Walton forged on as the team suffered embarrassing back-to-back losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan, then were run out of Arizona's gym. A strong finish in the Big Ten could still get the team to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan won four of their first six games in conference play, but the fourth came at an insuperable cost. LeVert limped off the Crisler Center court after a frantic final play against Northwestern. Subsequent tests revealed a fracture in his left foot, and he underwent season-ending surgery.
Despite his own balky left foot, Walton attempted to put the team on his back, knowing he was best-suited to fill the void left by LeVert:
"(LeVert's injury) is an incentive for me to not only physically be present, but vocally," Walton said. "With his absence, I just have to be a lot more of a vocal piece to this team. That's something that's got to be done if we're going to get where we're trying to get."
His body couldn't bear the load. Favoring the injured toe only caused more problems in his foot. Unable to practice, Walton was shut down at the end of January. While his jump shot remained effective, he'd made only 6-of-35 two-point attempts in eight Big Ten games.
Michigan's two best players sat on the bench in walking boots as the Wolverines lost eight of their last eleven and missed the postseason entirely. To the bitter end, Walton insisted he was day-to-day.
With Walton and LeVert healthy, Michigan was poised for a bounceback in 2015-16. Instead, the previous year's bad luck carried over. Walton's roommate and co-headliner of the 2014 class, Zak Irvin, missed the season opener with a back injury that would sabotage his shooting accuracy. His only viable backup at point guard, Spike Albrecht, stepped away from the program after gutting out nine games on surgically repaired hips.
The timing of Albrecht's departure couldn't have been worse. He left in the midst of a three-game absence for Walton, who sprained his ankle on that seemingly cursed left leg. After Michigan essentially played without a point guard while getting shellacked at SMU, John Beilein pulled the redshirt off walk-on Andrew Dakich for the second straight year. While the Wolverines got through non-conference play at a respectable 10-3, they lacked a signature win.
As Michigan sewed up a Big Ten opening win at Illinois, LeVert took a pass from Walton, broke through the Illini press, and shoveled the ball to Mark Donnal for a game-sealing assist. On the way, however, he stepped on Kendrick Nunn's foot; LeVert's very much cursed left foot rolled. He would appear just once more in a Michigan uniform, a depressing 11-minute stretch against Purdue in which he was clearly not himself.
Walton, once again, faced a dramatic midseason change in roles. LeVert had played the part of both leading scorer and offensive conduit; his replacement, D-III transfer Duncan Robinson, could replicate his outside shooting and little else. Irvin's efficiency swung wildly from game to game. While Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman locked down a starting spot, the rest of the sophomore class—Kam Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins, and Ricky Doyle—couldn't develop at a satisfactory rate. Doyle, who discovered in February that he'd been hampered by sleep apnea and asthma, formed an underwhelming platoon with Donnal at center. Redshirt freshman DJ Wilson looked lost in his limited, dwindling minutes on the court; a young German named Moritz Wagner flashed potential when not, as he frequently was, in Beilein's doghouse.
In retrospect, it's remarkable this team managed even their limited success. Walton, the leader by default, grew into Michigan's most effective player even though he still couldn't reliably finish at the rim, whether due to lingering injury, lagging confidence, lack of development, or some combination of the three. After LeVert's injury, he led the team in points, assists, and even rebounds, displaying his now-trademark knack for rising above bigger players to snatch defensive boards.
The Wolverines clawed their way into the NCAA Tournament on a play that encapsulated both what that team had to overcome and how far their leader still had to go. Walton struggled mightily in the first two games of the Big Ten Tournament, missing all ten of his shots from the field. As the second game neared the end of regulation with Michigan and Indiana deadlocked, Walton had the ball in his hands with a chance to win and all but secure an at-large bid. He maneuvered around a Wagner screen into open space; instead of shooting, he deferred, and not even to the player he thought was standing in the corner:
“They have similar haircuts, man,” Walton said. “I thought it was Aubrey [Dawkins]. Once I passed it to [Chatman], I was kind of pleading for it back. No offense to Kam, but it’s just — you know, those types of moments. You dream of being in that moment. So for me to pass it up, I kind of regretted it. But the moment wasn’t too big for him.”
Chatman's improbable shot was enough to get Michigan one of the final spots in the NCAA field. After a play-in game victory over Tulsa, the team ran out of gas, losing a 13-point first-half lead over Notre Dame as Walton shot 4-for-13. This time, more of the blame fell on his shoulders. What we didn't know at the time, however, was that two years of turmoil would push Walton to become the player he'd expected to be out of high school. The moment would never be too big for him again.
“Any other moment going forward, if I get the opportunity,” Walton said, “you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m shooting it.”
Despite injury concerns, Caris LeVert went off the board with the 20th pick of the 2016 NBA Draft. Spike Albrecht was eager to return to the hardwood, but with touted point guard recruit Xavier Simpson coming to campus, Michigan had moved on. The last remaining member of the 2013 NCAA finalists grad-transferred to Purdue. Kam Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins, and Ricky Doyle all transferred, as well. At long last, this would be Walton's team from the get-go.
As John Beilein will readily tell you, Walton did not take that responsibility lightly.
"He put in a summer with himself that was Stauskas-, LeVert-like. He just worked and worked and worked. I think he’s got confidence now that he can take shots that—he was always a low-percentage two-point shooter, so he worked at that. He worked at right- and left-handed layups with a guy pressing on him with a dummy on him and things like that. He worked really hard. With that hard work comes confidence."
The fruits of Walton's labor weren't immediately apparent. He didn't tally a point in Michigan's first big test, a blowout of Marquette at Madison Square Garden, though it's worth noting that neither did his point guard counterpart. While he rebounded the following night with a 23-point, six-assist performance in a statement win over SMU, all of his makes came from beyond the three-point arc.
Still, Michigan's romp through the 2K Classic appeared to be a prelude to a great season. Instead, the following two months would serve as a harsh reality check. The offense disappeared in an ugly loss at South Carolina. Two games later, the Wolverines coughed up a late seven-point lead at home against Virginia Tech. After hanging tight for one spectacular half, Michigan couldn't keep pace against a UCLA squad that got, and made, whatever shots they wanted.
As the unpredictable Irvin asserted himself more than Walton, Michigan's offense struggled to find an identity; while they scored with the efficiency of a not-quite-elite Beilein offense, you never knew who would take the lead on any given night. Worse, so much worse, was the defense, which appeared both disorganized and disinterested as new assistant Billy Donlon installed a new system.
The season hit its nadir on the trip to Illinois. Michigan made 54% of their twos and 50% of their threes, numbers that would indicate a victory in most games. The Illini, however, shot 64% both inside and outside the arc. Maverick Morgan, who'd spent the previous ten games coming off the bench after losing his starting spot, made 8-of-9 shots to lead Illinois to a comfortable win. Walton had a respectable 11 points and seven assists, but his eight shot attempts was just fourth-most among Wolverines.
Afterward, Morgan called Michigan "more of a white collar team traditionally," and compared the Wolverines' toughness and defense unfavorably to Illinois, a program that would fire their coach by the conclusion of the season. Frustration intensified among a Michigan fanbase that long had an uneasy relationship with Beilein and his three-happy squads despite their success.
Walton regarded the jab as an affront to his very identity.
"Honestly, because I’m an inner-city kid, I’ve never been called soft ever. That’s never been a question in my mind. Nobody ever questioned my toughness before."
He called his team together. His message was simple.
"The coaches only need to say so much. We talked about this last night at a team, players-only meeting last night. It’s about—they make the calls. They make the adjustments. They make the subs. But it’s on us to make the plays out there. That’s why we’re all here. Everybody’s a great player. At some point, it meets the point, Coach [Beilein] says, it’s the point he can only say so much, it’s up to us to make plays and make stops."
His message, like his offseason workouts, took a little time to take hold. Michigan won the following game against Nebraska, but in doing so they allowed 85 points on 70 possessions. From that point forward, however, a new team emerged, spearheaded by a leader determined to take the team's fate into his own hands.
For every team save the champions*, the college basketball season ends in a loss. With that in mind, let's reintroduce Hector, this time as portrayed in The Iliad:
“My doom has come upon me; let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.”
Post Maverick, Walton played 21 games. He averaged 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game with a 3.4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He scored 20+ points in ten games after doing so seven times in his collegiate career to that point. He joined Gary Grant and Jalen Rose as the only Wolverines to record 1,000 points, 400 rebounds, and 400 assists, then became the first in the 1,000/500/400 club. He broke Grant's 29-year-old school single-game assist record. By two. Michigan went 15-6, transforming into a top-ten team.
He Waltoned. Which, incidentally, became a thing, forever synonymous with a senior-year Kent-to-Superman act.
*Feel free to include the NIT/CBI/CIT in this number or, like the rest of the world, ignore them entirely.
Walton had spent his time at Michigan as the consummate teammate, always looking to get his talented teammates going before seeking his own shot. At the same time he called upon his team to step up and make plays, he embraced calling his own number.
"He’s really become the guard that he always wanted to be and we always wanted him to be. It’s not that he’s been bad in between. It’s just that he’s such a great, unselfish player who’s always about the team. I think he convinced himself that if it’s really about the team, then I need to do more." — John Beilein
The swaggering star of Chandler Park Academy and the blacktops of Detroit was reborn in maize and blue. This Walton fought through contact for and-one buckets. He made inch-perfect assists, whether hitting a slipping big man in stride, two-handing a 35-foot bounce pass, or launching an 80-foot outlet over the top. He hit pull-up threes over rubber-kneed defenders and let them hear all about it on the way back down the court.
Walton did it all. He grabbed a career-high 11 defensive rebounds, ten more than a certain loose-lipped center, to help Michigan avenge the Illinois defeat. He made 7-of-8 shots in a 30-point blowout of Indiana, the beginning of a five-game streak of KenPom MVP honors. Losses to Michigan State and Ohio State couldn't derail him; he posted a 20-5-8 line as the Wolverines boatraced the Spartans at Crisler, then poured in 25 in Michigan's second win at Assembly Hall since 1996.
Michigan went 6-2 to close out the regular season, beating Wisconsin and Purdue for signature wins and losing only in a foul-marred overtime game at Minnesota and a miracle finish at Northwestern. In doing so, they moved off the bubble and into the category of teams nobody wanted to see in their region. Their defensive turnaround mirrored Walton's, while the offense gained its identity through the myriad ways Walton and Moe Wagner picked apart defenses off the high screen. When Walton surveyed the defense and directed Wagner to the corresponding spot on the floor, you knew a moment of calculated brilliance would follow, even if you were never sure how it would take form.
Walton boarded the team plane destined for Washington DC and the Big Ten Tournament with the goal of securing a banner of his very own. While he'd started on the 2013-14 conference champions, that banner was inextricably linked to Stauskas, LeVert, and Morgan. A tournament title this year would, first and foremost, be Walton's accomplishment.
He'd have to clear one more unexpected hurdle first.
You know the story by now. Amidst winds exceeding 50 miles per hour, the plane had a mechanical issue, and the pilot had to abort takeoff. The plane careened off the end of the runway, through a fence, over a road, and finally came to rest just before it reached a ravine. While none of the 109 passengers was seriously hurt, one player had a gash on his thigh that required five stitches. Walton, of course.
Following some tense deliberation, Michigan boarded another jet at 7:30 the next morning. They asked for only a 20-minute delay of their noon tipoff against, of all teams, Illinois. Wearing practice uniforms because their game jerseys were in the belly of the wrecked MD-83, the Wolverines blew through the Illini. They were led, as was now the norm, by a superlative performance from Walton, bandaged leg and all.
Michigan won four games in four days, the last three against the one-, two-, and four-seeds. In the semifinal against Minnesota, Walton scored a career-high 29 points and dished out nine assists for good measure. He tallied a mere 22 and seven in a comfortable title game triumph over Wisconsin.
All throughout, he carried himself like the best player on the floor, because at long last, he was just that.
Michigan's first-round matchup pitted Walton against lightning-quick Oklahoma State point guard Jawun Evans. Both players, and their teams, got off to slow starts. Walton shot 1-for-6 in the first half, Evans 3-for-12; the Wolverines held a 41-40 halftime lead.
The second half featured one of the great offensive displays in recent tournament memory. Evans pushed the Cowboys to a six-point lead, collapsing Michigan's defense with his forays into the paint. Walton, unperturbed by his poor first-half shooting, answered Evans' strikes by raining fire from above.
The Wolverines made an incredible 11 second-half three-pointers; Walton accounted for five of them on six attempts; he assisted on four more. He drained a corner triple over Evans after a jab step, a clearout, and another jab step in four interminable seconds. He commanded Duncan Robinson to shoot while his pass was mid-flight. He launched a bomb from the midcourt logo with six seconds on the shot clock; at no point did it seem like a bad idea.
With Michigan clinging to a five-point lead in the final minute, Walton worked his way into the paint, ducked past Evans, and swished a high-arcing one-hander. He cooly drilled two free throws with ten seconds left to keep the Cowboys at bay. Michigan would hang on.
Their reward: a matchup with two-seed Louisville for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.
Once again, Walton found himself mired in a shooting funk, and this one extended well into the second half of a game controlled by the Cardinals. Michigan erased a nine-point deficit on the strength of Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson exploiting mismatches inside; Walton had been relegated to defense-bending decoy.
That ended in crunch time. With the Wolverines up a single point, Walton—who'd gone 1-for-11 from the field—drilled a signature stepback three after his jab step caused seven-footer Anas Mahmoud to sink a step too far into the paint. Wagner would get the lead up to six, but Louisville wasn't finished; back-to-back Michigan turnovers allowed them back within two in the final minute.
Walton held the ball near midcourt as his teammates, save Wagner, cleared out. As the shot clock hit ten seconds, Wagner shuffled over to set a screen to Walton's left. Before Wagner was set, Walton crossed the ball over and bolted to the right, gaining a step on defender Tony Hicks. Louisville's imposing back line was on full alert. Athletic 6'7" wing Deng Adel, who'd rejected a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman attempt at the rim minutes earlier, rotated into the paint to challenge the shot. Mahmoud trailed, waiting to pounce.
Walton hadn't made any of his five two-point attempts in the game, but he still brimmed with confidence born from a summer shooting layups while slamming into foam dummies. He flipped a shot that cleared Adel's outstretched hand by a fraction of an inch, bounced high off the glass, and fell through the net as he tumbled to the floor. It was his shot to take; he made the most of it.
"After they made play after play after play, I just told them I could bring it home and hit the shot. I hit the jump shot, and I hit the layup."
Wilson iced the game at the line, ensuring Walton's heroics wouldn't be for naught.
As Hector had sensed, his time was coming to a close. After Hector met Achilles on the battlefield and decided to fight the following day, Achilles and his band of Myrmidons found Hector resting unarmed and killed him. While the Trojan hero had fallen, his bravery, skill, and honor in battle, especially in contrast to the conniving Achilles, earned him the lasting respect of even foes like the Grecian Ajax.
If it be so, yet bragless let it be;
Great Hector was a man as good as he.
Walton's final stand came in the Sweet Sixteen against Oregon. He and Irvin were the only Wolverines who could find any consistency in a disjointed, ugly game that was nonetheless close from wire to wire. In the final five minutes, Walton made a go-ahead three, assisted on one by Irvin, and gave his team a three-point lead on a tough jumper with two minutes left.
The Ducks scored on consecutive trips to retake the lead, and with 15 seconds to play, Walton intentionally fouled Dylan Ennis. Michigan got new life when Ennis missed the front end of his one-and-one. There was no doubt who would take the last shot.
Walton slowly worked his way into the frontcourt, then took a few hard steps towards the basket before stopping on a dime, clearing out the requisite space to rise up for a jumper he'd made so many times over the previous couple months. His shot hit the rim with a startling thud.
Walton put his hands on his head, shocked and devastated by the sudden end. His career wouldn't culminate in the ultimate triumph. After the game, however, it was clear that it couldn't have ended any other way.
"I've seen him make that shot thousands of times, so I had confidence in him knocking it down. It looked good from my angle. No one else on this team that we wanted taking that shot. He's been on a run and such a great player. I'm proud of him." — Zak Irvin
Time ran out on Derrick Walton, but not before he'd risen to greatness and seized every moment. His crowning achievement was not that he missed his last shot, but that everyone believed it was going in.