It should not have come as a major surprise the Michigan basketball team dropped its first Big Ten Conference game over the weekend. What has been a bit unexpected is how quickly Derrick Walton Jr. has managed to turn the corner in his development since the start of league play.
Not much attention should be paid to Michigan's loss to Indiana on Sunday. Let's face it, going undefeated over the course of an 18-game conference slate, especially one as daunting as the Wolverines', is an unlikely scenario. Even head coach John Beilein did not have his sights set on running the table in Big Ten play.
John Beilein said he had "no expectation of going 18-0" in the Big Ten.— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) February 2, 2014
Considering Michigan's well-documented struggles at Assembly Hall, a victory would have been surprising. After all, the Wolverines have just 12 wins in their 76 trips to Bloomington.
Should this year have been different?
On paper, absolutely.
Indiana dropped a home game against Northwestern earlier in the season and was 3-5 in league play prior to its win over Michigan. For whatever reason, though, the Wolverines were unable to overcome the demons of Assembly Hall once again.
Also, teams will attempt to copy the Hoosiers' defensive strategy of switching on high ball screens, but few will have the personnel to execute it as well as they did. A healthy Michigan State, Iowa or Wisconsin might be the only three teams able to give Michigan a whole lot of problems, in that regard. For this reason, the loss should not be overlooked completely.
As previously mentioned, though, no one should be panicking in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines did not lose the Big Ten title or fall from the ranks of the national championship contenders with one road loss to a team battling just to make the NCAA tournament.
In fact, the two bright spots in the loss were the two true freshmen, Walton and shooting guard Zak Irvin. The duo combined to sink 6-of-12 attempts, including a pair of three-pointers, and scored 20 points.
Both will have to be at their best come March for Michigan to fulfill any of its championship aspirations, and while Irvin still has to prove he can be consistent, Walton already fits into its title blueprint.
|Derrick Walton Jr.'s Progression|
|Points||Assists||Turnovers||Field Goal Percentage|
|Non-Conference (12 games)||7.7||2.8||2.1||41.6|
|Conference (9 games)||10.2||2.7||1.7||57.4|
Since the start of Big Ten play, the freshman point guard has been fantastic. Statistically, the improvements can be seen in the table above. Those numbers also include a game in which Walton played just three minutes due to illness, which undoubtedly hurts his averages.
The things that do not show up in the stat sheets are far more important, though. The Harper Woods, Mich. product is shooting the ball with more confidence, becoming more assertive and is making his reads quicker.
"I'm just being more assertive, and my teammates are giving me the go-ahead to be assertive, and it's helping us as a team," Walton told Rod Beard of The Detroit News.
In a 14-point performance against Purdue, his jumper looked better than ever. Beilein delivered some high praise immediately after the game, per John Borton of TheWolverine.
The two pull-up jump shots he had, we didn't see even earlier [in the year] in practice...It's something he's been working on, and LaVall Jordan does a great job with him. Those were shots No. 3 [Trey Burke] used to hit last year for us over and over again. That's important, being able to hit that midrange jump shot.
His growth of confidence in what he's doing, what the right plays are, has been nothing short of amazing based on what an 18-year-old has to do.
Oh, and in case anyone forgot, Walton already has a game-winning basket under his belt.
For Michigan to have any shot at a Big Ten title, or make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, it needs to be able to trust its freshman point guard to make plays at critical junctures. He is doing just that right now for the Wolverines.
Whether it be his layup at Nebraska, nine free throws and three-point plays at Michigan State or jumpers against Purdue and Indiana, it is clear Michigan can go to Walton in late-game situations. This could not be said during nonconference play.
Given Caris LeVert's offensive ups and downs, in addition to the extra attention teams are devoting to Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines needed another go-to scorer. Thankfully, Walton has emerged as that option.
Come March, Michigan will be reaping the rewards of Walton's progression and newfound assertiveness.
Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam