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October 29, 2013

Walton, freshmen shine in collegiate debut

Derrick Walton, meet college basketball. College basketball, Derrick Walton.

The Wolverines' true freshman point guard received a big cheer from the lively and less-sparse-than-a-typical-exhibition-game crowd at Crisler Arena when he checked in early in the first half.

And after a few big-eyed plays, Walton settled into his role and eventually shined, adding 11 points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals to Michigan's gregarious numbers in a 117-44 rout of NAIA Concordia.

After missing his first shot, Walton went on a run that completely blew the game wide open.

He received a pass from sophomore Glenn Robinson III and drained a wide-open three-pointer. After a Concordia missed shot, Walton broke out in transition for an easy layup. Then, he turned around and poked out a steal, racing back up the court for another quick score.

On the Wolverines' next position, Walton hit fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan in the lane for an assist.

At that point, the score was pushed to 42-11 - and the blowout was officially on.

"Here's what I always like: he went in there, and he didn't hit his first shot," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "It was one of the first few bad shots we took. But then he hit his next one and his next one, a three-pointer. That's usually a good sign, when guys come off the bench and start shooting it right away. He's a great defender. He had a few bad closeouts, but he is going to learn quick."

Walton admitted that he may have had a few nerves when he first checked into the game, but that's completely natural for a rookie stepping onto a college court for his first-ever action.

"The speed today was crazy," he said. "The speed isn't usually like that in practice, and the game speed was crazy … Midway through my time in there, the jitters were gone, and I felt like I usually do. I played my usual game."

After a few minutes, he looked like a veteran, directing traffic, finding open shooters on the perimeter and creating good looks on his own.

"The first couple plays, he was a little nervous, a little shaky, and then all of a sudden, bang, bang, bang," sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said. "A three, a layup, a steal and a breakaway layup. That's what D-Walt brings to practice every day. He 's a confident kid. He brings energy, and he plays good defense. Just keep looking for him to do that in games."

Walton played 24 minutes against the Cardinals, and was in until the final buzzer, surrounded by a cast of true freshmen: forward Mark Donnal, forward Sean Lonergan, guard Cole McConnell and guard Andrew Dakich.

"I wanted to get him as many minutes as we could get him," Beilein said. "Spike has been out there, and he knows what he's doing. We wanted to give Derrick every minute we could out there today. If we had one more guy on the roster at that spot, we might have put him out there to get him in the game, but we wanted Derrick to get as many minutes as he could."

Walton wasn't the only rookie to get into the mix.

Guard Zak Irvin checked in early. He, too, was a little lost in the action to begin with, but he quickly eased into the pace of the game to provide some quality minutes.

Irvin finished 4-of-7 shooting for 10 points in 19 minutes.

"For Derrick and Zak, that game was a blur," Beilein said. "We practiced one way, but they played with a completely different look. We don't trap a lot, but they were trapping us. They were running a completely different offense than we run. We didn't have any sort of scouting report on them, because they had a new coach. Their head was spinning, and I liked how they played."

Donnal played the final five minutes of the win. Unlike Walton and Irvin, his immediate future is still in question. With the Wolverines' boasting Morgan, redshirt junior Jon Horford and redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt - not to mention sophomore Mitch McGary, who will be back in the fold soon, once his sore back is fully rehabbed - the frontcourt is loaded with players battling for playing time.

"The one thing we're trying to replace is Tim and Trey," Beilein said. "You look at Derrick and Zak - and there it is. There are a lot of older bigs right now. With Mark, we're watching him, and we're going to teach him the game. He can wait him in the game and consider. We have one more game we can play him without burning the redshirt, then we have to consider what we're going to do."

But Donnal had a promising start, stepping back to hit a deep two on his first collegiate shot. The bench erupted when the shot tickled the twine.

"It was a great feeling, to see all the freshmen get in there," Robinson said. "That's something they have been waiting on. I look back at my first game and having the opportunity. I was nervous, too. I had to keep in mind that they were a little nervous, but I think they did a great job."

Dakich, McConnel and Lonergan also got some good minutes.

Of course, the Wolverines won't be requiring their services too much when the regular season roles around, but the team relished the opportunity to get their young guys on the floor, after a summer spent working toward this moment.

"As sophomores, we were in that same position last year, just waiting to get on the court," Stauskas said. "That first exhibition game is so great - you get out there, and you're nervous, anxious, excited. We could definitely see that today, and we were happy that they could get out there and show what they've been working on."

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