While most of the country was admiring the moves of national player of the year Trey Burke last March, Derrick Walton Jr. was studying him. Walton was still a senior at Chandler Park Academy in Harper Woods, Mich., but he knew he would become the Wolverines' starting point guard as soon as Burke left for the NBA. Now Burke is with the Jazz and Walton is in Ann Arbor, where he—just as Burke did two years ago—joins a roster seemingly built to suit his skills.
Burke arrived as a scorer with exceptional ballhandling ability who had to learn how to be a playmaker; that team desperately needed its point guard to score. Walton is an outstanding passer who knows how to get his teammates good shots—just the skills that the Wolverines need now. Sophomore forwards Mitch McGary (a rare high-energy post scorer with range out to 15 feet) and Glenn Robinson III (a gifted shooter and an extraordinary leaper who needs to develop a dribble-drive game) are likely first-round NBA picks whenever they leave school. And sophomore guard Nick Stauskas made 80 of 182 (44.0%) of his three-point shots as a freshman.
The Wolverines don't need Walton to pile up points as Burke did. They just need him to get the ball to McGary, Robinson and Stauskas. Says Michigan sophomore Spike Albrecht, who has faced both point guards in practice, "They're both really good. D-Walt can score, don't get me wrong, but he is really good at facilitating. He makes great decisions. He knows when to pass, when to shoot."
Walton says, "We have shooters around the floor, we have big guys who can finish around the basket. . . . I feel right at home." If Walton falters, Michigan can turn to Albrecht, a cult hero after his 17-point first half in the national-title game, an 82--76 loss to Louisville. But for this team full of finishers, Walton looks more than ready to start. —M.R.
The Wolverines play six games against teams in the USA Today coaches' preseason poll: No. 2 Michigan State (twice), No. 4 Duke (on the road), No. 5 Arizona (at home), and No. 10 Ohio State on the road. They could also play No. 15 Virginia Commonwealth in the second round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Player to Watch: Caris Levert
Levert will see time everywhere from point guard to small forward, and with his length and quickness, could be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. He has the kind of all-around off-the-bench game that will make TV analysts gush.
Telling number: 1.54
Michigan led the nation with 1.54 assists for every turnover. It wasn't all because of point guard Trey Burke, either. John Beilein's teams are notoriously protective of the ball.
Q&A with Head Coach John Beilein
SI.com: How much has the run to the national championship game changed the program?
Belein: You see it in recruiting right now. You're trying to get the very best players, and we will get very, very good players. The competition is certainly different than the days when we got Stu (Douglass) and Zack (Novak), and even Timmy Hardaway and Trey Burke.
SI.com: This team may not be better than last year's, but will it be more versatile?
Belein: That's one of our things. We were so defined: Who was going to have the ball at shot-clock time, what we were going to do when we needed a basket, what our defensive switching patterns were. This is still a work in progress, and I love it, because there are some really fine young men who are ready to adapt to whatever we ask them.
SI.com: Your biggest stars, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, are only sophomores. Are they able to lead?
Belein: It is hard for them because they are being cast into that way early. But you know what? Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan are really doing a great job. (Horford) has a chance to start for us ... yet he is in that sweet spot, of trying to get yourself better but still worry about your teammates. That's not so easy.
SI.com: Have you watched the NCAA title game loss to Louisville?
Belein: I have watched major parts of it at different times. They were a really good team. There is a reason they were a No. 1 seed.
SI.com: Do you watch for emotional reasons, or to break down the tape?
Belein: Just breaking down the tape ... what we can show these guys, about little plays that make a big difference. Whether it's a 50/50- ball, an action that we're running ... just technique. There were a couple of times we got stripped in transition. When you show it in the championship game, it makes a difference.