Dear Loyal Readers,
Before we get into this week’s topic, thought you might enjoy my four minute interview on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, debating Michigan football practices with Paul Finebaum. Here is the link: https://vimeo.com/204365125 Password: accesstobookers
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
Michigan’s basketball team, led by two strong seniors, was expected to return to the NCAA tournament this year, for the seventh time in coach John Beilein’s tenth season at Michigan. But after the Wolverines dropped three of their first four Big Ten games, few would have taken that bet. They were all but left for dead.
They weren’t just losing. They were losing ugly. When they played a weak Illinois squad, they all but rolled over in an 85-69 blowout. Afterward, an Illinois player said Michigan played “White collar basketball” – which is not exactly a compliment in a league generally considered to be the most physical in the country. Not long after, Coach Beilein himself said Michigan didn’t have any “junkyard dogs out there.”
The defense stunk, the effort was weak, the team was soft. Some folks started seriously wondering if Beilein would be fired.
But that’s when senior captain Derrick Walton Junior called a “players’ only” meeting to straighten the team out. Walton later explained to a reporter that there were only so many games left, and he thought their team was better than the ones they’d be losing to, so it was time to show that.
“The coaches only need to say so much,” Walton said. “They make the calls. They make the adjustments. They make the subs. But it’s on us to make the plays out there.”
The next day, Michigan beat a mediocre Nebraska team – but they beat ‘em. Michigan then battled the Big Ten’s top team, Wisconsin, before losing by a mere four points. But they were playing defense now, crashing the boards for rebounds, and diving for loose balls. They were tougher.
The Wolverines proved it in their rematch against Illinois – the team that called them “white collar.” Even though Michigan was playing at home, they decided to wear their navy blue road uniforms – and there was a message in that. They played like blue-collar workers, beating up on Illinois, then blowing out Indiana at home by the stunning score of 90-60.
The difference was obvious, and so was the leader: Derrick Walton. He was running the floor, hitting his shots, passing with aplomb, and even grabbing rebounds, though half the time he was out there, he was the shortest guy on the court. He had taken over the team, made it his, and brought them back to life.
Even after a dispiriting loss to a weak Ohio State team, Walton picked his teammates back up again. He led them to a huge win over Michigan State, prompting MGoBlog.com’s Ace Anbender to say, “If the whole team can continue to rise up to the standard Walton is setting, they may just make the late run they need.”
They next traveled to Indiana, where Michigan had won exactly once in its last 18 tries. No matter. Walton’s Wolverines dominated the Hoosiers from start to finish. Walton became only the third Wolverine to notch 1,000 points, 400 assists, and 400 rebounds. The others were Gary Grant and Jalen Rose, two of Michigan’s greatest players. When they arrived in Ann Arbor, Grant and Rose were already big national stars – and they left even bigger stars. Walton has come out of nowhere, but he’s now at their level.
Last night, against Wisconsin, Walton’s Wolverines beat the Big Ten’s best team, proving they’re for real, and all but wrapping up another NCAA tournament bid. In the process, Walton became the first Wolverine to surpass 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 400 assists — truly in a class by himself.
Whatever the Wolverines do down the stretch, two things have been established: they can’t be accused of playing white-collar basketball anymore, and Derrick Walton Junior is one of the best leaders Michigan basketball has ever seen.
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My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong. The paperback version,with 57 pages of new interviews with Harbaugh and others, is out. Literati and Nicola’s have signed copies
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