Team meeting sparks Michigan as Irvin and Walton take control

(Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin scored 41 points in the Michigan basketball team’s 91-85 win over Nebraska.

The senior guards and team captains effectively closed out the game, scoring 24 of the Wolverines’ final 25 points, taking turns making the clutch free throw or pivotal layup or crowd-pleasing jumper.

It was the duo’s best performance points-wise of the season, and the first time all season the two had controlled a game so well down the stretch. But it might not have even been the two’s best contribution of the weekend.

The finer moment occurred Friday night, in Walton’s hotel room. There, the two led a players-only meeting, where the slumping Wolverines hashed out what was going on in their surprising 1-3 start to conference play, and how a once-promising season could be resurrected.

“There’s only so many games left,” said Walton, who called the meeting. “We’re hitting the (middle) stretch, and the back stretch is coming soon. It’s time to make some noise. I feel like we’re a ton better team than we showed, and I feel like our record doesn’t show how good we are.”

Neither player would reveal what was said in the meeting, but guessing isn’t hard. Michigan had been favored in all four Big Ten games, but had trailed by double digits in all of them. Defense had become an afterthought, and resiliency was far from a given.

A loss at Illinois, in which Maverick Morgan called the Wolverines “white collar,” was supposed to be a turning point, but it wasn’t showing in practice.

“We practiced well but we didn’t have that bounce you’re going to need,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, who has guided Michigan to six NCAA Tournaments in his last eight seasons. “Their success last year in making the Tournament can get in the way of the next year sometimes in how you practice. If you get punched in the mouth, to get up is a little harder if you’ve had success.”

So for “15 to 30” minutes, according to Irvin, the team figured out how to get up before time runs out. Defense was still virtually abset the next day, but players drove to the basket more, sprinted down the court more and, most importantly, scored more than the other team.

Don’t call it a turnaround yet, but the Wolverines felt like they had regained some mojo from earlier in the season.

“A meeting like that, when you see how many guys are so passionate about winning and that really want to win, it really did justice tonight,” Walton said. “We made some strides in areas that we thought was a point of concern.”

Added Irvin: “This is a place we’ve never been before. This is where we find out what teams are made of, and for us to be able to bounce back like this is huge.”

Michigan’s still a ways away from looking like an NCAA Tournament team, let alone a team able to contend for anything beyond simply a berth.

But for now, while wins are scarce, the Wolverines will celebrate Saturday’s win. They will also do so knowing that, as long as it lasts, Friday might’s meeting might have been an even bigger victory.

“It’s not necessarily panic mode, starting off 1-3, but we definitely needed to get everything in check and make sure everyone is on the right page,” Irvin said. Because we do have to play with a sense of urgency.

“This is our last year, and we want to do everything we possibly can to put our team in the right situation and be able to win games. … We just want to win.”

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