March 11, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- John Beilein has spent the last seven seasons with Derrick Walton Jr. The University of Michigan men's basketball coach began recruiting his senior co-captain when he was a sophomore at Chandler Park Academy in Harper Woods, Michigan.
Beilein wanted some one-on-one time with Walton, who has become like family to him, and gave him a lift to the airport last weekend before flying out for the final game of the regular season.
"When Derrick went to the airport with me last week," said Beilein, "when we flew to Nebraska, he rode with me. I drive sometimes. I just wanted to talk with him, not about basketball. I just wanted to talk with him."
They talked about life. But as you would expect, conversation turned to basketball.
Walton turned to Beilein and said: "Coach, we're going to go win that tournament. That's my goal, is to win that tournament."
I asked Walton about his Big Ten Tournament proclamation during that conversation.
"It's just something I want to do so badly." Walton said. "It's one of these things that can't be taken from you. We didn't have a chance to win the regular-season title, but you get a second chance in this tournament. I told my guys, and we all made a devotion to do what we want to do.
"It will be very memorable for us, so I thought, 'Why not?'"
The Wolverines blew out the Cornhuskers after Beilein and Walton had that talk, and they have beaten Illinois, top-seeded Purdue and fourth-seeded Minnesota in three consecutive Big Ten Tournament games. Michigan defeated the Golden Gophers, 84-77, Saturday (March 11) to advance to Sunday's championship game with second-seeded Wisconsin.
It was a game decided by Walton far more than anyone else. He scored a career-high 29 points, including 19 of his team's 37 second-half points. He also had nine assists, many coming when the Wolverines started the game on fire to take a 29-13 lead, along with five rebounds, two steals and only one turnover.
When the final seconds ticked away, Walton looked up at the Michigan fans in the Verizon Center and raised his right fist in their direction. After concluding a television interview with Beilein on CBS, Walton looked at the sea of maize and blue again to salute them with a joyful smile.
"They've been with us every step of the way," said Walton. "But, quite honestly, I was trying to find my mom (Angela) in the crowd. Our support, though, is second to none, and they travel as far as they need to to support us. It's only right that I show them that I appreciate them in that way."
Walton either scored or assisted on 18 consecutive points as the Wolverines put away the game in the final seven minutes, and he began that victory march with a truly magnificent showing that resulted in him scoring eight points in only 1:45 with a pair of swished three-pointers serving as the exclamation points.
"I just wanted to win," Walton said of the vibe he was feeling then. "And I was willing to do whatever it took. I wanted to make as many plays in the run as I could and stretch the lead. All I'm thinking about and all I'm caring about is winning."
That was a demoralizing time for a feisty Minnesota team that had tied the game, 55-55, with 13 minutes remaining and stayed close for the next six minutes. But the Gophers never could take the lead. Walton wouldn't let them. Minnesota was down by three points when Walton went on that run, and it trailed by nine once Walton finished torching.
"I thought he hit some tough shots," said Minnesota coach Richard Pitino. "He's a really good player. To my mind, he's one of the most underappreciated point guards in the country. ... I thought he was terrific."
Pitino's own point guard, Nate Mason, scored 23 points with six rebounds and four assists. But as hard as Mason tried willing his team to victory, he came up short of Walton.
This was significant because Mason was the first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media, while Walton made second team on both teams. That didn't seem right to his Wolverines teammates after both players had nearly identical statistics.
So, after Beilein applauded Walton's performance in his postgame address to the team, the players chanted: "FIRST TEAM! FIRST TEAM! FIRST TEAM!"
Walton loved it and smiled widely.
Still, after leaving the locker room, Walton chose not to gloat.
"When my team's playing this hard," Walton said, "I don't care about it right now."
His four-year roommate and co-captain, Zak Irvin, had 13 points, five rebounds and four assists. Moritz Wagner saw to it that the Wolverines got off to a strong start, collecting 14 of his 17 points in the first half. Duncan Robinson came off the bench for 10 big points.
Beilein said both Walton and Irvin "put the team on their back and we got the 'W'," and both are displaying a great feel for the game, which has slowed down considerably for them.
"This means a lot to us," said Walton. "We got here our freshmen year, weren't able to finish the job. Being one of the two leaders of this team, we want to make sure we get back and finish the job."
Irvin added: "This is March. We want to be playing our best basketball in March. Derrick and I, one of our team goals was to win the Big Ten championship and the tournament. We have a great opportunity in front of us. We just want to keep it going."
Walton and Irvin were freshmen the last time the Wolverines reached the Big Ten championship game, losing to Michigan State in 2014, and this is their chance to give Michigan its only conference tournament championship that counts. The Wolverines won the first-ever tourney in 1998 but had to vacate it due to NCAA sanctions.
So, this championship quest means so much to so many.
"This has been the message going forward. ... These guys changed my whole mindset," said Beilein. "'Coach, let's go win this tournament,' Derrick said. Four days, pack your clothes, let's go win it."
Beilein has seen Walton take ownership and control of the team.
"We started recruiting Derrick when he was a sophomore," said Beilein. "His family loved Michigan, and we ended up getting what I thought was one of the best point guards in the country.
"So, he was subjected to a lot of film sessions. We coach him pretty hard because we saw all of this talent, and we didn't think that he was taking advantage of it, and it wasn't his fault. He just didn't understand he had another level.
"Now, he does."