Entering Tuesday night's game between bitter rivals Michigan and Ohio State, the Wolverine sophomore class was the main story. Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert have been the primary scorers for coach John Beilein's intricate and efficient offense, but how would they react against Ohio State's tenacious Aaron Craft-led perimeter defense?
Answer: Not well. The trio combined to make only 10 of 30 field-goal tries, partially redeeming themselves by making five of 13 from three-point range. They combined for 38.3 percent from long range entering the Ohio State game.
Meanwhile, Michigan won the game 70-60.
That last sentence may cause a little cognitive dissonance until we factor in the contributions of Michigan's most important player. That player? Freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr., all 6'1" of him.
Held totally scoreless in the first half, all Walton did in the final 20 minutes was card 13 points and eight rebounds, forming the lion's share of his first career double-double. He attacked the basket, sank free throws, dished six assists on the night and made every Ohio State player's life miserable, particularly Buckeye center Amir Williams.
In doing so, Walton may have asserted himself as the alpha weasel—no insult, the wolverine is actually a member of the weasel family—of the Wolverine attack as UM chases not only a Big Ten Championship, but a second straight trip to the Final Four.
In the Wolverines' other major rivalry win this season, Walton was just as big a factor. He dropped 19 points and four assists—against only one turnover—in leading Michigan to an 80-75 win at Michigan State.
Who wins the Big Ten title?
Against Ohio State, Walton simply didn't care who was in his face. He drew a charge on Williams that sent the normally stoic Beilein onto the court grinning. A layup that forced Williams into another foul capped a 12-0 run that put Michigan up six in the final 10 minutes.
Finally, Walton put the nail in OSU's coffin by drawing a three-shot foul on—guess who?—Williams with 1:54 left. The three free throws put UM up 10.
Walton didn't blink in the crosshairs of a man nearly a foot taller and 70 pounds heavier.
Just like he only flinched once on nine free throws in the final 2:29 against Michigan State.
Just like he drove right into a finger roll to put the Wolverines up late in a tight win at Nebraska.
Stauskas told MLive.com's Brendan Quinn after the Nebraska game, “For (Walton) to do that here, that will give him confidence that he can do it just about anywhere in the Big Ten." He's now done it in East Lansing and in Columbus, which are even tougher places to excel than the brand-new edifice in Lincoln, Neb.
Walton needed to provide a spark against the Buckeyes in the face of his teammates' struggles, particularly Robinson's. Putting aside the home rematch with Nebraska, GR3 has averaged only 7.4 points in the rest of Michigan's last six games.
Earlier in the conference season, Beilein was relying more on Stauskas and LeVert to run the offense. Walton was relegated to more of a secondary shooting role.
Michigan survived without him when he missed most of the first meeting with Iowa due to flu-like symptoms, and since then he's hit a groove.
According to StatSheet.com, the past two games have seen his two highest assist percentages of the season aside from that brief Iowa cameo. He's taking his place running the Michigan offense, and he may not face any venues more hostile than those he's seen in Big Ten play.
When Robinson, Stauskas and LeVert are struggling to create good shots, as they were at Ohio State, the Wolverines will need an aggressive hand from Walton. He's proven himself a dangerous threat off the dribble, and his jumper isn't one to be ignored (52.9 percent from three over past six games).
As Michigan charges down the stretch toward the NCAA tournament, Walton will become more of a focus of opponents' game plans, ratcheting up the pressure that already came with "replacing" national Player of the Year Trey Burke.
Walton isn't Burke, and he's never claimed to be. He's not likely to score 30 on any of Michigan's tournament opponents, but as he proved against the Buckeyes, he can make his plays count no matter the opposition or the setting.