Derrick Walton grows up in East Lansing

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Michigan 80, Michigan State 75-23EAST LANSING — “Derrick, he’s growing up right before our eyes.”

That was Nik Stauskas immediately after Michigan’s 80-75 victory over Michigan State at the Breslin Center. It was the Wolverines fifth win in seven tries against the Spartans since 2011. And no one had a bigger hand in Michigan’s third win in a row over a top-10 opponent than Derrick Walton. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)

He was Michigan’s co-leading scorer, along with Stauskas, with 19 points. He grabbed five rebounds and racked up four assists. Perhaps the most telling sign of Walton’s “growing up” was in the turnover column — the freshman registered just one, in the final two minutes of the game. For much of the season, it has appeared as though Walton was simply trying to keep his head above water, still learning the system and at times playing tentatively because of it. But on Saturday, it was a different story.

It was, unquestionably, the best game of the young point guard’s career.

“I always feel like a freshman, but I knew I had to play like a veteran,” Walton said outside the visiting locker room after the game. “I got all the guys counting on me to make the right plays at the right time. Coming in here, my mindset was to stay poised and make the right plays.”

That’s what made the Walton who 15,000 screaming Spartan fans saw at the Breslin Center tonight so different than the Walton Michigan fans have seen so far this season. He didn’t just play well — he played like a veteran. In the past, even when Walton played well, there were little things that reminded you he was a first-year player. The two missed free throws late against Minnesota come to mind. 16 points and three assists against Penn State — to go along with three turnovers.

In East Lansing on Saturday Walton was, statistically at least, virtually flawless. He missed three of his five twos, but hit both of his 3-point attempts. He made nine of his 10 free throws. He didn’t turn the ball over until the final two minutes. In an atmosphere Walton said was the loudest he’d ever experienced, he played as though he’d been there before.

“One of the reasons I know why Derrick embraced coming to Michigan was the tremendous games he was going to be able to play in the Big Ten,” John Beilein said of Walton after the game. “This is a great environment, like all the great environments are.”

Walton set the tone for his career game early, fearlessly hitting a 3-pointer on Michigan’s opening offensive possession. He didn’t shy away from Michigan State’s notoriously physical play, either — the Detroit native hit two layups at the rim with contact for and-1 situations, one at the end of each half.

When asked about the physicality of the Spartans, Walton all but brushed it off.

“I wouldn’t say (it was the most physical defense we’ve played) this year because practices are very physical,” Walton said. “It’s kind of the norm now just because we prep playing like that. Coming in, we were just sort of expecting it.”

Those could be considered bold words, but Walton backed them up. Throughout the game, Walton was matched up against a fellow in-state player four years his senior, Michigan State point guard Keith Appling. And all game, Walton proved over and over again that he wasn’t intimidated in the least. In fact, Walton was the opposite of passive, seeking out ways to affect the game late — at no point was this more obvious than on his three-point play with two and a half minutes left in the game.

Walton continued to seek out play-making opportunities when he refused to give up the ball late when Michigan State started intentionally fouling him. He didn’t disappoint in that area either, hitting seven straight free throws on his way to a 9-for 10 night from the line.

“I’m a guy who’s comfortable shooting free throws in late-game situations,” Walton said. “I knew that we were blitzing off the ball so lofting a pass would have been very dangerous. So I just kept the ball myself.”

Walton began his career at Michigan by replacing a Player of the Year and perhaps the greatest point guard in Michigan basketball history. It hasn’t always been easy for the freshman this season — he’s shown flashes of ability, but more often it’s been apparent he’s still learning.

“We just tell him, ‘hoop,’” Jordan Morgan said of Walton after the game. “Just play, man. Our system can get complicated, and some guys can get caught trying to tread water. We just tell him, ‘players gotta play and sometimes you just have to play ball.'”

It’s that simple: against Michigan State, Walton played ball.

  • Ryan

    Thanks LaVall Jordan.

  • Dr_ZC

    Well, Izzo said no excuses, and then he talked about the 2 players he did not have for the game. To his credit, however, he stopped short of making additional excuses. He could have said that Harris, Appling and Valentine broke their hands slapping the floor, which led to an 11-2 run by Michigan

  • Fab 5 Legends

    anything we get from Walton & Irvin is a bonus – im glad there improving as the season goes on…those 2 will def be x factors the rest of the year – where opposing defense will not be focusing so much on them rather our goto guys

  • beelza

    Injury takes down Michigan State 80-75. The real headline as told by sparty. Losing a pre-season All-American is a far greater loss than anything sparty is dealing with presently.

    • Russ

      Agreed. Izzo gave us absolutley no credit. So sick of hearing him cry about injuries..The bottom line is we were the better team last night and he needs to deal with it…

    • Russ

      *Absolutely*

  • Fresh

    injury line is meaningless, people are idiots when they say that. i’m sure this has been discussed some where but MSUs starting 5 were all top 100 or better kids, along with a few kids on their bench. Michs 5 only have 3 top 100. MSU had plenty of talent playing last night. that being said, dawson has never impressed me at all, payne is the important piece. anytime i have seen Dawson he has shown absolutely no offensive game. i’m assuming this is why he is sitting with a broken hand. he is athletic so he can jump and get rebounds. love hearing the excuses, makes me smile

    • Chezaroo

      Costello and Kaminski were heavily recruited by us as well.

  • AADave

    I agree with others here about the injury excuse. It was annoying to see the ESPN headline about Michigan beating the “shorthanded Spartans.” What about Michigan???? We’re playing without a first team All-American likely lottery pick (pre-injury) for pete’s sake. And we’ve had to play with 3 other starters (Stauskas, GR III, Walton) hampered/out with injury for at least parts of games. Totally ridiculous nonsense. Sure, Sparty will be tough to beat with Payne back but so would Michigan with McGary back. Michigan’s a Final Four caliber team with a healthy McGary (and might even be one without him).

    • Dr_ZC

      VDicky V has to retire. I think Appling mauled Walton at the end, and the VDick kept saying, he almost stole the ball. Even when they showed the slo-mo which was evident that Whalton was battered, The VDick insisted that Appling almost stole the ball. Of course, folks, isn’t it strange that Nik had zero foul shots? There was one occasion where Nik penetrated and went for the dunk, only to be clothes lined from behind… ESPN never showed a replay.. Blatant. But it is understandable. Everybody from ESPN predicted a win by MSU. I am sure they think craw does not taste as good as they thought. The refs were a total disgrace. But they had one call right. Spike’s Request for a TO. The problem was that the TO was given after 5 min, and coach JB went Ballistic.

      Edit: boy just realized that if you type one of G Carlins 10 forbidden words, you can get moderated. I had to rename Vitale’s first name above, to get approved :).

      • Champswest

        I thought there were at least 3 calls against UM that no replay was ever shown (including the one you mentioned where Nik got hammered. He was hot about that also.) They went to commercial so they could have shown the replay before or after, as they usually do.

      • AADave

        Yeah, I didn’t look at all the calls too closely but there are three calls/non-calls which seemed egregious. MSU had a tip back which was clearly still on the rim and thus an offensive goal tending. But it was a little close. Then, there was the traveling call on Irvin which isn’t normally called and even incensed Beilein to the point of a near-technical. The one which really took the cake was the Spike TO which was called a jump ball with the arrow to MSU. Spike signaled a TO no less than three times and the MSU defender had only one hand on the ball for a second. So the ref failed to give him a TO three times and then called a jump ball incorrectly. The last time a saw such an egregiously bad call was in last years national championship game. Of course, in that game there were several insanely bad calls, all of which went against Michigan as we all remember.

        MSU was benefiting from some home cooking from the refs throughout the game (Harris pushing off before shots, etc.) which makes the win even more impressive.

        • mikey_mac

          I hate to rail on the refs, but this game was by far the worst officiating of the season to date. They nearly lost control of the game with how erratic and tight they were about calling obvious fouls. Add in the other blown calls that hurt UM, and the headline should have been “UM outlasts MSU, refs”

  • AADave

    It’s good to see Walton finally show his potential for an entire game and prove all the naysayers wrong. The “Walton isn’t showing up” complaints were getting real old. He’s a freshman! Just give him some time to learn and mature. Even the very best players often have a bit of a learning curve. Now, he’s way ahead of the curve. But he will probably still have some ups and downs. Even Trey Burke wasn’t all everything until his second year.

  • Andrew

    And on Walton’s one turnover, he was pretty blatantly grabbed around the ankles, which makes it hard to recover a basketball.

  • Kenny

    In the last 7 games, this team starts to show its own identity, play with confidence and resilience. Every player in rotation, include Beilfeldt, plays within their roles but ready to step up. It is not a dominating and intimidating team, but it has the patience, composure and never lets frustration take over, and waits for its opportunity to delivery the knockout punch. Every win does not come easy but it is simply harder for the opponent.

  • beelza

    One final word, if the Payne and Dawson injuries were so catastrophic to sparty’s effort last night, the god of college bb metrics, KenPom, isn’t buying it. He had MSU by 2 WITH Payne and Dawson IN.