To get somewhere, sometimes you have to come out of nowhere. It happens often in the NCAA Tournament, and for Michigan to make another run, someone might have to do it again.

Stars must shine, that’s a given. But a year ago at this time, Spike Albrecht was a skinny freshman with an enthusiastic bounce who looked like he wandered over from middle school practice. Now he’s one of the grizzled leaders for the Wolverines, and by “grizzled,” I mean “finally using a razor.” His out-of-nowhere outburst in the NCAA championship game was epic, borderline mythic.

As Michigan enters the tournament tonight against Wofford, Albrecht’s role hasn’t changed a lot, but the point guard has. Derrick Walton Jr. is now the wide-eyed freshman, although he has started every game but one. With so much attention on Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III, the Wolverines will need someone at some point to do more, and Walton will get his chance.

John Beilein always talks about “outliers,” a player who can step outside his normal production. In last year’s tournament, it was Mitch McGary, who averaged 10.7 rebounds. Then it was Albrecht, who scored 17 points in the first half filling in for Trey Burke in the 82-76 loss to Louisville.

It’s tough to win tight games with young guards but it’s become Michigan’s blueprint, about to be tested again. Burke was a sophomore, and Stauskas and LeVert are sophomores now. The greatest endorsement of Walton is that it wouldn’t be outside his norm to handle the pressure. There always are concerns when a freshman takes his first tournament dribbles, but if he gets nervous, he can turn to a guy who didn’t shy from the heat.

“He’s been great all season, and he’s not going to be fazed by it at all,” Albrecht said. “He’s a big-time player and I’m excited to see him get out there. It’s a fun tournament, and the atmosphere is a little bit different, you know? It’s where crazy things can happen.”
Albrecht to Walton

Albrecht knows better than anyone. He went from unknown backup to a folk hero tweeting at Kate Upton after the title game. He has learned to handle it, and now it’s Walton’s turn. Beilein knew he was getting a good floor leader from Detroit Chandler Park Academy, where Walton played for his father. It was just impossible to know how quickly it would happen.

In one of Michigan’s biggest victories, 75-70 at Michigan State, Walton was spectacular down the stretch, finishing with a career-high 19 points. Beilein always has Albrecht ready to step in — his minutes have doubled this season — but Walton has been so solid, there hasn’t been a need to split the position.

“These guys do a great job of keeping me level-headed,” Walton said. “They’re always in my ear telling me to stay confident. Knowing these guys are with me, I have no fear at all. I know I’m a freshman, but I can’t play like a freshman anymore.”

He’s confident beyond his years, but not a boisterous, cocky leader. His ratio of assists (2.9 per game) to turnovers (1.6) isn’t great, but he’s hitting 39 percent of 3-pointers, 79 percent of free throws and looks comfortable late in games.

Valuing possessions is huge for the Wolverines because they don’t have an imposing defense. Their offense can be scintillating but it’ll have to be especially efficient in the tournament, and when their shooting is off, they have to drive. Stauskas and LeVert are very adept at it, and the point guards have to direct it.

Albrecht committed five turnovers the entire Big Ten regular season, a picture of poise that belies his energetic persona. At 5-11, it’s not easy to find big moments, but he never stops looking. That’s how he got his nickname back home in Crown Point, Ind., because he wore his baseball spikes everywhere, waiting for the next opportunity.

He has scored in double figures once this season — 10 against then-No. 1 Arizona — but he’s lethal on 3-pointers (39 percent). And no, he’s not preparing for the tournament by reminiscing about last year’s magic.

“It was crazy for a couple weeks after that, but it’s gone back to normal, thankfully,” Albrecht said. “Obviously the NCAA Tournament is no joke, but we have high expectations. We knew we could make a run at it, and that’s exactly how we feel this year.”