We’ve seen this before. Only it was a skinny kid from Davidson nine years ago who was draining 24-footers as if they were free throws, wrist extended, chest out, turning the Big Dance into his national coming-out party.
Stephen Curry circa 2008, meet Derrick Walton Jr. circa 2017.
Is there a better comparison? Is there an adjective that hasn’t already been beaten to death in the quest to chronicle the Michigan Wolverines and a March that can’t stop spitting pixie dust?
Walton’s line in a 92-91 escape of No. 10 seed Oklahoma State on Friday in the first round of his final NCAA Tournament: 1-of-4 shooting on 2-pointers, 6-9 on 3-pointers, 6-7 at the free throw line, 11 assists, 2 steals, 26 points.
Curry’s line in an 82-76 win against No. 7 seed Gonzaga in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament: 6-of-12 on 2-pointers, 8-10 on treys, 4-6 at the line, 2 assists, 5 steals, 40 points.
“I thought the better point guard won the game”
Derrick Walton Jr, POINT GUARD of the Michigan Wolverines #feelinyourself
— Will (@igotlenses) March 17, 2017
Walton, the senior, in one corner. Jawun Evans, the Cowboys’ cat-quick sophomore from Dallas, in the other, dropping 23 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds and basically daring the old man to try to keep up.
Early first-round matchups in Bracketville are often castles in the sand, washed away by the repeated waves of results, hour after hour, Sharpie after Sharpie. But this 7/10 tilt was a keeper. This was PS4 ball, video-game stuff, an old-school, playground flow. Swap out the NCAA ball for a red, white and blue ABA model and it could’ve been mistaken for Pacers-Colonels from 45 years earlier — hard on defensive purists but easy on the eyes.
Final ridiculous numbers: Michigan and Oklahoma State both scored 1.58 points per trip in the second half.
— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) March 17, 2017
The Cowboys (20-13) had opened the second half on a 12-5 run, punctuated by guard Jeffrey Carroll’s trey from the wing with 15:46 left. But defense — namely Michigan forward D.J. Wilson’s fourth block with 9:36 to play — spurred an 8-0 surge, a run capped by a Walton Jr. trey that pushed the Wolverines (25-11) to a 70-64 cushion.
Michigan hung on from there, but barely, as the Pokes whittled a 7-point lead with 54 ticks on the clock to 2 with 4 seconds to go. Which wasn’t really a surprise, given a first half that saw seven ties and eight lead changes. Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood, as cagey as they come, switched from man-to-man to zone and back, throwing in a three-quarters-court press to try to nudge the Big Ten tourney champs out of rhythm.
In a contrast of tempos — the Cowboys rank 64th nationally in possessions per 40 minutes (70.2), according to KenPom.com, while Michigan ranked 340th (62.7) — the Pokes set the pace early, with Evans zipping up the floor like a human jet ski.
Still, occasionally, No. 1 also would find himself swerving out of control, as the Wolverines forced 8 turnovers in the first half while committing 2.
With a pair of bigs who can shoot the trey like wing guards in 6-10 Wilson (19 points, 5 rebounds) and 6-11 Moe Wagner (6 points, 3 boards), Michigan is a funky matchup in a tourney setting, especially to teams facing a short turnaround. It’s part of the Wolverines’ quirky charm, if the fact they survived a nerves-shattering plane accident barely 10 days earlier doesn’t tug at enough heartstrings.
And yet it’s No. 10 who grounds them. It’s Walton Jr., the eye of the hurricane, an island of calm in a sea of chaos, the pair of cool hands at the wheel. In his last five games, all win-or-go-home stages, the Detroit native has averaged 21.6 points and 7.2 assists.
The best point guard on the floor. At the moment, the best point guard in the stinking bracket. And, now that you mention it, maybe the best point guard in several years.