AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR (AP) — When Derrick Walton was a freshman, he led Michigan to a victory at Michigan State that helped propel the Wolverines to a Big Ten title.
Now a senior, Walton hasn’t played at the Breslin Center since then — but the feeling of quieting a hostile environment still drives him.
“There’s nothing like an away win,” Walton said. “An away win is 10 times better than a home win in my book.”
Walton and the Wolverines will be back in East Lansing on Sunday when Michigan takes on the rival Spartans. After a slow start to the Big Ten season, the Wolverines have looked sharp lately, especially Thursday night in a 90-60 rout of Indiana. Walton scored 21 points in that game, and the veteran point guard’s leadership and shooting ability have been crucial to Michigan’s attempt to climb the Big Ten standings.
In 2014, Walton led the Wolverines into one of their most anticipated in-state matchups in recent years. Both Michigan and Michigan State were unbeaten in the Big Ten when they met in East Lansing, and the Wolverines prevailed 80-75 behind Walton’s 19 points. Michigan went on to finish first in the regular season, although the Spartans beat the Wolverines in the championship game of the Big Ten tournament.
The following year, Michigan lost at Michigan State while Walton was out with toe problems. In 2016, there was no Michigan game in East Lansing. The teams met only once, and it was in Ann Arbor.
They’ll play each other twice during this regular season — on Sunday at Michigan State and Feb. 7 at Michigan. Walton, who is from Detroit, is the only player from within the state getting regular playing time at Michigan right now. At Michigan State, on the other hand, Miles Bridges (Flint), Cassius Winston (Detroit), Kenny Goins (Troy) and Matt Van Dyk (Imlay City) all average at least 9.9 minutes a game.
Walton said players who aren’t from Michigan should still have plenty of motivation for this matchup.
“Just like (Thursday) night, guys, not from Indiana, but you’ve got to do it for your brothers,” he said. “You saw (Indiana native) Zak (Irvin) before the game. Man, he was so locked in. I’ve never seen him that locked in. He wanted to win so bad.”
The Wolverines (14-7, 4-4) dropped three of their first four conference games, but they’ve fought back to a .500 mark in league play. Michigan State (12-9, 4-4) has lost three in a row, allowing Michigan to pull even with the Spartans in the standings.
Although the teams have been moving in different directions of late, the Wolverines haven’t won a true road game all season. Their best wins away from home — against Marquette and SMU back in November — were in New York.
While Walton and Irvin have plenty of experience dealing with hostile Big Ten crowds, two of Michigan’s most improved players this season — sophomore Moe Wagner and junior D.J. Wilson — have never faced Michigan State at Breslin.
“This one’s one of the better road crowds that we’ll go to see. That’s the big thing. They’ve got to go out there,” coach John Beilein said. “If you remember, two years ago, we went up there with a team that had lost everybody — Derrick, Caris (LeVert) — and it was an overtime game. That team really showed great substance when they had to do it.”
Michigan is healthier this season, and the Wolverines have more experience among their top players than Michigan State. But every trip to East Lansing to face the Breslin Center fans presents some obvious challenges.
“I’m pretty sure they respect us — but of course, they hate us a lot more than they respect us. That’s just a given,” Walton said. “It’s just a feeling that you can’t describe — just knowing that the outcome of the game, you win on the other team’s court, and it’s a rivalry game, it’s nationally televised. I’m pretty sure everyone will be locked in.”
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