Countless times throughout Saturday’s win over Penn State, the Michigan basketball team would huddle up, and look to its leadership to take the wheel.
A month ago, it wasn’t clear what Michigan was going to do in Big Ten play. It had already lost Albrecht to injury-induced retirement, and LeVert — the team’s leading scorer and All-American candidate — was ruled out indefinitely.
With no seniors and a non-conference season that left plenty to be desired, the Wolverines appeared to be skipping Big Ten contention and heading straight to bubble watch.
But a month later, Michigan is just one game out of first place in the conference, and the only thing bubbling is the team’s confidence.
It doesn’t have a LeVert-type leader, it has two.
“When you listen to our huddle sometimes, Zak (Irvin) is out there,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Like he is standing on a soapbox, he’s telling what he believes. He’s passionate. Derrick (Walton) is very much like Trey (Burke). We’ll find out how he feels. He’s going to do it much more with his actions. They’ve really emerged.
“Necessity is the mother of invention. They have really changed their personalities.”
Irvin and Walton were in true form Saturday, once again taking turns making plays. Irvin finished with a team-high 20 points, while Walton added 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Irvin carried the Wolverines through the first half and finished the opening period with a buzzer-beating corner three-pointer. Walton picked up steam offensively in the second half, threading the needle on several beautiful passes in transition.
In addition to the numbers, the duo also kept the Wolverines on course. Michigan never trailed, but was notably off from the 3-point line, and needed to reshape its identity on the fly to distance itself from Penn State.
And though neither one has been named a captain yet for the Wolverines, Irvin and Walton have learned to reshape their identities as well. Necessity is also the mother of reinvention.
“As the season’s gone on, we’ve been able to adjust to teams and how our shot is falling,” said Irvin. “We noticed the shots weren’t falling today. We were able to get in the paint, and that was a good part of the game.”
Though the Wolverines can feel good about an admirable and surprising 7-2 start to conference play, the road gets substantially tougher in February. This upcoming week features bouts against No. 19 Indiana and No. 12 Michigan State, and Michigan will face three other ranked opponents before any postseason play begins.
It’s an intimidating stretch, but the Wolverines don’t feel the need to be intimidated any more.
“These last four games have all been around single digits with about four minutes to go, so we needed big baskets during that time to win,” Beilein said. “You’ve got to be able to finish at the foul line, execute your press breaker, so I felt very good down the stretch. … We’re getting a rhythm right now of how to play at that time.”
Added Walton: “This group of guys is really resilient. Game after game we’ve made runs, and withstood their runs, and we never got too high or too low within either one.”
Michigan will need all the resiliency it can get in its final nine games. But if things go off course, its newest leaders, Irvin and Walton, will be there to right the ship
“(Saturday) was a good example of we couldn’t get a shot to go,” Walton said. “(But) we always knew that down the road we’ve got the guys that can make the big plays that we’re accustomed to making.”