Lincoln, Nebraska has been pretty kind to Derrick Walton over the years. He’s never lost a game against the Cornhuskers and scored the game-winning layup four years ago in the first Big Ten game of his career. Tonight, he played the last regular season game of his career and made it count with a record-setting performance and a blowout victory.
Walton dominated the game from the opening tip, leading his team to a 93-57 win, and set Michigan’s single-game assist record with 16 dimes. The 18 point, 16 rebound and 5 steal performance was just another notch in the belt for the senior point guard who has carried the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament over the last month.
Michigan left no doubt as it handed yet another team its worst loss of the season with the 36-point win. The Wolverines have accomplished that feat against 7 teams this season (H/T: Mark Snyder), and as I wrote earlier this week, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that they have as much upside as anyone in the Big Ten.
Michigan might be tied for 5th place in the final standings and have to play as an 8-seed this week in Washington D.C., but it outscored its opponents by more points per possession than everyone in the league other than Purdue.
That final efficiency margin table is the best endorsement that there is of just how high this team’s ceiling is in the postseason.
It’s easy to be awed by Michigan’s eye-popping offensive efficiency, but we’ve seen that plenty of times before. Holding Nebraska to .88 points per possession on the road is impressive and it is even more impressive when you consider how terribly the Wolverines defended Nebraska in the first meeting.
Tai Webster and Glynn Watson combined for 40 points on 21-of-35 shooting in that January shootout. They had 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting on Sunday night. Michigan’s pick-and-roll coverage has improved exponentially since those early ugly moments and this performance illustrated that improvement as well as any game yet. The Wolverines hedged, recovered and helped in the ball screen game and lived in the passing lane all night, forcing giveaways on 25% of Nebraska’s possessions.
Easy stops and turnovers are like kerosene for Michigan’s offense. It’s hard enough to stop the Wolverines in the half court, if you give them too many transition opportunities it becomes almost impossible. The Wolverines shot 74% on twos and 52% on threes for a nearly flawless 75.9 eFG%. Most of Michigan’s shot attempts were threes (14-of-27) or layups and dunks (12-of-14) and that is a recipe for easy offense and a reminder that the point guard might be pretty good.
Beating one of the league’s worst teams in a game that means very little isn’t worth getting too excited about, but this was also a coveted road win that all but cemented Michigan’s NCAA Tournament spot. And the Wolverines won it with style to prove that they had bounced back from the disappointment in Evanston earlier this week.
Michigan will open the Big Ten Tournament against Illinois on Thursday at noon, which is a match-up that many might not have hoped for when there was at one time the potential for a two-day bye, but it is also one that Michigan should be able to handle.
- Derrick Walton: If Derrick Walton isn’t an All-Big Ten First Teamer (yes, ballots were due by 9 p.m. on Sunday night), there should be an investigation. John Beilein called him ‘Trey Burke-like’ in his post game and it is hard to argue. He was absolutely incredible down the stretch this year and this was a fitting ending. 18 points, 16 assists and 5 steals is an incredible stat line and he was dominant all night. He started the game with his passing, but quickly stretched Michigan’s lead in the second half by hitting an array of tough pull-up jumpers.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin made his first three of the night and made a big step toward righting the ship after his brutal recent slump. He had 15 points on an efficient 6-of-9 (3-5 3pt) shooting night and he looked as smooth and comfortable as he has in weeks. The jumper was pure and confident and he also grabbed four rebounds in a solid performance.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner only played 22 minutes due to some foul trouble, but he knocked in 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and was confident with his three-point stroke (3-of-4) which opened up Nebraska’s defense in the pick-and-pop game. Wagner might not have had as many ISO looks, but his threat and ability to stretch the floor forces teams to make all sorts of tough decisions about how to defend the Wolverines.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman had a monster dunk in transition for the second game in a row and he continues to be a lethally efficient offensive option: 13 points on 5-of-7 (2-3 pt) shooting with with 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 assists while doing a terrific job defensively against Tai Webster.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson was kind of sleepwalking in the first half and missed a couple of shots at the rim, but it was nice to see him knock in a few shots and score 7 points in the second half. He had some great help rotations in the pick-and-roll game, but Michigan is going to need some more from him down the stretch.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson will wrap up Big Ten play with the best offensive rating in the conference (131.1 points per 100 possessions) and shot 45% from three in league games. He knocked in 2-of-3 tonight, but also scored on a backcut and a really nice pull-up jumper.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson had 6 points, 2 rebounds and an assist in 10 minutes and it was pretty jarring to see the confidence that he played with when the backups were in the game late compared to what we saw early on this year. His confidence is clearly growing by the day and that bodes very well for the future.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal checked in and botched a couple of possessions, then he hit a three and turned his whole performance around. He had 9 points, 2 rebounds, a block and two steals in 14 minutes and was active on both ends of the floor.