INDIANAPOLIS — Derrick Walton Jr. and Jawun Evans have never met before, but Walton, the Michigan senior point guard, thinks he has an early advantage on his counterpart from Oklahoma State. Walton is good friends with Iowa State guard Monte Morris, a Flint native, and he’s been talking to Morris ahead of the Wolverines’ first-round NCAA Tournament game against the Cowboys.
So, what’s Morris been telling Walton?
“I think I’m going to keep that between us two,” said Walton, smiling ear-to-ear Thursday in the media room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Michigan (24-11) and Oklahoma State (20-12) tip off at 12:15 p.m. ET Friday, the first game of Day 2 of the tournament. Michigan is the No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region and has won 10 of its last 12 games, including four wins in as many days last weekend to capture the Big Ten Tournament title. Oklahoma State, the 10 seed, had won 10 of 11 games before dropping its last three.
One of those losses was by 5 points against Kansas, the No. 1 seed in this region. The other two have been against Morris and Iowa State.
Evans, a sophomore, is averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game this season. He’s scored in double figures in 28 of Oklahoma State’s 32 games, leading the nation’s most efficient offense according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The Cowboys are averaging 85.5 points per game, which is the second-highest scoring average in Big 12 conference history behind only the 2001-02 Kansas team.
“We have had Darius Morris, Trey Burke, Derrick Walton. We’ve been blessed with point guards,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We’ve examined that. What (Evans) has done with assist numbers, his lack of turnovers is incredible and his speed of the game. I compare him a lot to a kid that gave us fits: Nate Mason from Minnesota is a really eye-level point guard that can shoot it in. That’s not all he does.”
How Beilein described Evans sounds a lot like Walton, who is averaging 15.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and has a 2.69 assist-to-turnover ratio. Evans’ ratio is 2.23 but he also has 28 more assists than Walton in three fewer games. Walton was named the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and is averaging 20.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 8.2 assists in the last five games.
“I think they do it in a little bit of a different manner, but it’s hard to argue with (Walton’s) numbers,” Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood said. “Of late, I mean, he’s 20 points per game in the Big Ten Tournament. He’s doing it in just about every fashion, transition. He’s doing it in the half court, he’s hit jump shots, (and) he’s finishing at the rim.”
Underwood added: “Jawun does all these things.”
Michigan is in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in Beilein’s 10 seasons. It reached the national title game in 2013 with Burke at point guard. Walton came in the next year and got a lot more playing time earlier than expected when Burke left for the NBA. The Wolverines went to the Elite Eight in 2014.
Walton is much more seasoned as a senior, as this most recent run shows.
“He gets his teammates involved,” Evans said about Walton. “He goes to the hot guy. If he needs to score, he scores when he’s needed. So, we have similar games.”
Walton compared Evans’ game to that of Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
“He’s good at changing speeds,” Walton said.
That’s all Walton was going to give up about Evans. How well he applies the scouting report he got from Morris will play out on Friday, in what should be an enticing matchup.
“Jawun makes his teammates better. That’s the definition of a great player. Their guy does the same thing,” Underwood said. “And, I mean, he makes his teammates better. He is the driving force for their team, and he’s got great leadership skills. That’s been very evident, watching him on film, getting in guys’ faces when he needs to and challenge them and pat them on the butt when they need it. That’s the sign of a very good player.”