By: Will Burchfield
Every time the Michigan basketball team makes the trip from Ann Arbor to Willow Run Airport, coach John Beilein picks one player to go with him.
“We don’t talk basketball usually — maybe a little bit, but it’s more about life, how they’re doing with their classes, I ask about their family,” Beilein told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “You don’t get a lot of chances for one-on-one time with them during the course of the season, so that’s my 25 minutes of one-on-one with a player on all 11 trips.”
Ahead of Michigan’s game at Nebraska on March 5, the final game of the regular season, Beilein rode to the airport with his co-captain and starting point guard, Derrick Walton. The Wolverines, 19-11 at the time and coming off a last-second loss to Northwestern, weren’t yet assured of a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were just talking, and I mentioned it was an important game (in regard to the) bubble,” Beilein recalled, “and then he said something along the lines of, ‘We don’t have to worry about the bubble, we’re going to win the Big Ten Tournament and have the automatic bid.'”
Beilein was moved by Walton’s confidence. So he asked him, “You want that?”
Walton didn’t flinch.
“Coach,” he said, “I want that so bad. I want to win that championship so bad.”
Seven days later Walton made good on his word, lifting Michigan to an improbable Big Ten Tournament triumph. The four-year senior averaged 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in four games over four days and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“So for him to say that, was just like…” Beilein began, before pausing and searching for the right words. “Now I think that he was a bit of a prophet back there.”
Ironically, Walton wanted nothing to do with the Big Ten Tournament after Michigan’s frightening plane accident last Wednesday. When the team held a vote later that night to determine whether it would fly to Washington D.C. on Thursday morning or remain in Ann Arbor and forfeit its second-round game versus Illinois, Walton, who sustained a cut on his leg during the accident, apparently voted to forfeit.
But Walton was in the minority, and some 12 hours later he was in D.C. He kicked off the tournament with 19 points, five assists and four rebounds in a 20-point win over the Illini and never looked back. It was the culmination of a long stretch of play during which Walton has seemed to reach his full potential.
“There’s a learning curve for everybody where they really get to see the game and what they can do,” Beilein said. “I’ve had it with freshmen, I’ve had seniors do the same thing, where all of a sudden you see who they truly are later in their career, and this is one of those circumstances. He’s always been good, but he’s been great this last month of the season.”
Beilein said the coaching staff has encouraged Walton to open up, something that runs counter to his character.
“We think he’s got another level. Here’s what it’s like,” Beilien explained. “It’s like a guy with an incredible personality, but because they’re humble and they’re giving, you just don’t see it. Sometimes, those people need to share that personality with more people. He’s got so much talent and he’s got such a great attitude about the game that he needs to speak about it a little bit more and he needs to show his talent a little bit more, and we’ve been encouraging it all the time.
“In this last month or six weeks, he’s just taken it to heart.”
Looking back on Michigan’s surprising run to the Big Ten championship, Beilein isn’t so sure it would have transpired without the preceding trauma of an aborted takeoff, an emergency evacuation and a near tragic ending.
“Who knows? There were a lot of things going that just gave our kids a little extra something, but that doesn’t always win,” he said. “You’ve got to have talent and you’ve got to have togetherness, and we have both of those things.”