Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin Keeping Michigan Focused During NCAA Tournament Run

The Michigan Wolverines brushed off a plane accident to win the Big Ten tournament and advance to the Sweet 16, with seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin providing the leadership.

John Beilein requires a form of technology he doesn’t quite understand to monitor Derrick Walton Jr.’s and Zak Irvin’s workload. Listening to Beilein discuss the process, it’s easy to mistake Walton and Irvin for senior citizens, not senior basketball players.

Walton and Irvin are the elder statesmen for a Wolverines team that easily could’ve lost focus following a terrifying plane accident instead of winning the Big Ten tournament as a No. 8 seed and advancing to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7.

But here they are in Kansas City ready to face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night, and Beilein has done everything to make sure his leaders are energized. Michigan uses a wearable that captures performance during practices and games to help.

Beilein eluded to the beginning of the season, when Michigan won the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden, then suffered a 61-46 loss at South Carolina five days later as Walton and Irvin shot a combined 5 for 27 from the field.

Michigan Wolverines guards Derrick Walton Jr. (10) and Zak Irvin (21). (Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

“I have been able to monitor Derrick and Zak,” Beilein said. “Their workload before the (South Carolina) game had been twice what I (had) done. Stuff you don’t see as a coach, you’re trying to back stuff off – let’s do that one more time and let’s do that one more time – and all of the sudden you can overpractice.”

As Beilein helps the duo keep their bodies refreshed, Walton and Irvin have helped the Wolverines get their minds right following the March 8 accident where their plane skidded off the runway prior to takeoff for Washington, D.C. Michigan arrived hours before its Big Ten tournament opener the next day, wound up winning the whole thing, and beat No. 10 seed Oklahoma State and second-seeded Louisville to reach Kansas City.

Walton is averaging 19.4 points and 8.3 assists during the Wolverines’ seven-game winning streak. He’s started all but one game in his four-year career and has come a long way from the timid freshman point guard he was when he arrived in Ann Arbor.

“He has always been a young man who really deferred to others at that time,” Beilein said. “This year I think that – remember we talked about needing a little bit more? A little bit more? He took those talks seriously, whether it was from teammates urging him saying, ‘Derrick, you are really talented. You’ve got to be looking for your shot.'”

Mostly, he’s leading by example.

“Just (don’t) want it to end,” Walton said. “We strung together a couple of games and (came) in with focus every single game and have the same type of laser focus that helped us get to this point.”

Irvin shares that sentiment. He’s averaging 14.4 points during Michigan’s winning streak while shooting a stellar 57.5 percent from the field, and has teamed with Walton to help some of the younger players get through the recent difficult times.

With their guidance, the Wolverines have gone from entering the Big Ten Tournament on the NCAA Tournament bubble to a victory Thursday night from reaching the Elite Eight.

“It’s been one heck of a run that we’re on and we’re playing really well right now,” Irvin said. “We just don’t want it to end.”

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