Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t want to say it, even though it was on nearly everybody’s minds.
Standing in the locker room after Michigan’s 84-77 win over Minnesota, he had just been asked whether he felt like he had something to prove going against Nate Mason, the player chosen over Walton for the All-Big Ten First Team earlier this week.
Less than an hour earlier, he had been on the court, letting out a triumphant — though hard to decipher — yell after an exceptional string of plays and a couple of made 3-pointers.
In this moment, though, he was apparently not feeling quite so bold.
“I’m pretty sure that’ll be the headline,” Walton said. “But, to me, I just want to be the best point guard on the floor every time I’m out there. I think I did a pretty good job today.”
It was quite the understatement.
Walton was not only the best point guard on the floor Saturday, he was easily the best player. He led all players with 29 points, and he was one assist shy of a double-double.
In a first half that saw his team score 47 points and take an 11-point lead into the locker room, Walton chipped in 10-points, six assists and four rebounds. Five those assists came in the first six minutes.
The offense was so seamless under his direction that 47 first-half points actually seemed underwhelming considering the looks Michigan was getting. And, as it turned out, he was only just getting started.
As Michigan’s energy dipped and its lead slipped away at the beginning of the second half, Walton took over.
He drilled a couple of huge triples on back-to-back possessions with about six minutes remaining, and, seemingly single-handedly, set the tone for a renewed burst of energy from the worn-down Wolverines.
“I’ve known Derrick for a long time and, when he gets that look in his eye, I know he’ll get it going,” Irvin said. “And especially when he gets one going — I think he hit a pull-up that started everything — and he hit those two back-to-back threes. And at that point, just really get him the ball and he’ll take care of it.”
Needless to say, Walton made his case as a first-team snub on Sunday. But Mason came to play, too.
The Golden Gopher point guard went off for 23 points and four assists, showing that he’s no slouch, either. As Minnesota battled for its conference tournament life, Mason scored 10 points in the final 3:20, doing everything in his power to match Walton’s earlier surge.
But by then Walton was already locked in, just as he has been for the last month.
“Let’s be honest, everybody was conscious that Derrick made second team in the Big Ten and Nate Mason made first,” said senior guard Sean Lonergan. “But the thing that I think stands out the most to me is I don’t think it’s necessarily as much about Nate Mason being first team and Derrick being second team. I think this is something that you’ve seen for the last month or two — really the second half of the Big Ten season when you started to see Derrick’s kind of turn around — where he’s taking every match-up personally.”
Watching this first half unfold were members of the Wisconsin basketball team, Michigan’s opponent in Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament title game.
When that game tips off, the Badgers will be tasked with slowing down the scorching hot floor general. And even though they held him in check when the Wolverines hosted the Badgers last month, they can expect to face a player intent on rectifying that this time around.
Prior to the Nebraska game last weekend, Walton rode with Michigan coach John Beilein on the way to the airport. According to Beilein, Walton stated his intent to go on a run and win the Big Ten Tournament.
“I’d never had anybody say that before,” Beilein said. “… I said, ‘I’m with you, man. We’re packing for four days, let’s get it done.’ And, boy, he did a good job today getting us in position, to be in position, to win the tournament.”