After Michigan lost to Michigan State in late January, a popular Michigan website remarked that it would be difficult for senior Zak Irvin to erase his scoreless performance against the Spartans from the top line of his Michigan legacy.
Consider it erased.
At the time, Irvin's performance against the Spartans seemed like an exclamation point to what had been a disappointing senior season to that point. Yet, despite the rough game, and despite not being able to shake his season-long offensive woes, Irvin didn't stop playing. Irvin still struggled with his shot, but he often set the tone for Michigan on defense. And Michigan's improved defense, as much as anything, is what has spurred the Wolverine's late-season surge, a surge that ultimately led to a Big Ten championship few could have seen coming six weeks ago.
Michigan won the Big Ten tournament by playing its best basketball of the season. It won by winning four games in four days and defeating the number one, two and four seeds in the process. It won, in large part, because of a brilliant performance by senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. Walton averaged more than 20 points-per-game in the tournament, but more importantly, often carried the Wolverines for long stretches. Never was that more true or more critical than in Michigan's semi-final win over Minnesota. After the Gophers stormed back to erase a 16-point first half deficit to tie the game with a little over 13 minutes to play, Walton took over, scoring scored 17 of Michigan's next 23 points (and assisting on four more) during a crucial ten-minute stretch. Walton finished with a career-high 29 points, including a perfect ten for ten from the line, in leading the Wolverines to a seven-point win and a spot in Sunday's final.
But as brilliant as Walton was, he didn't do it alone. DJ Wilson, Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman all stepped up at various times, but if there was one constant other than Walton, it was Irvin, who played his best stretch of basketball of the season - seasons, perhaps. Irvin averaged 15 points on 57% shooting, continued to lead the Michigan defensive effort and delivered a 15-point, seven rebound, five assist performance in the championship game.
Walton and Irvin have appeared in a combined 260-plus games for Michigan. The two seniors have become such fixtures in John Beilein's line-up that you would be forgiven for thinking that they've been in Ann Arbor longer than their actual four years. The headliners in a recruiting class that was joining a team fresh off a Final Four appearance, Walton and Irvin were supposed to seamlessly lead Michigan to continued conference and tournament success. Yet, despite a Big Ten regular season championship and an Elite Eight appearance in their freshmen season, the Wolverines struggled. Michigan finished the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons with a combined .500 record in conference play and recorded just one NCAA tournament victory (a play-in victory over Tulsa). Midway through this season, things didn't look much better for the Wolverines, and after back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, Michigan stood at 14-8 and appeared to be going nowhere.
Yet instead of throwing in the towel, Michigan responded by finding another gear, a gear they hadn't been able to find all season. During the past week, Michigan has been widely hailed as a "team of destiny" after its plane crash on the eve of the Big ten tournament. But the truth is, Michigan has been playing the best basketball in the Big Ten the past five weeks. The Wolverines finished the season winning ten of 12, with the only losses coming in overtime at Minnesota and as the result of a full-court, buzzer-beating lay-up at Northwestern.
With Walton and Irvin leading the way, that hot stretch culminated with Michigan's first tournament championship in nearly 20 years and the most exciting stretch of basketball since Michigan's NCAA tourney run five years ago. And in the process, Walton and Irvin authored a new top line in their respective - and collective - Michigan legacies. That of Big Ten champions.