DETROIT — Travis Walton played defense when few of his peers did back in high school and summer leagues.
It earned him a Michigan State scholarship four years ago.
Now, a national title could be up for grabs.
The end of Walton's college career might hinge on how he fares against Connecticut's A.J. Price in a national semifinal today.
"That is a key matchup," coach Tom Izzo said Friday. "Even though they have tremendous size, I still think Price is the guy who stirs the drink. Price, both from a scoring standpoint and penetration standpoint, is as good a player as we faced at that position.
"Now, we've faced some good ones."
Such as Sherron Collins of Kansas -- twice -- and Terrence Williams of Louisville.
Collins scored 20-plus points in both games, but lost in the regular season and round of 16 against the Spartans. Williams made only one shot against the Big Ten defensive player of the year in the Midwest regional final.
Neither star was playing as well as Price is now, coming off most outstanding player honors from the West regional. The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 20 points in the tournament and 19.3 since Jerome Dyson had a season-ending knee injury in mid-February.
"He's a great player. He makes big-time shots," Walton said. "The main thing is try to contain him and don't let him embarrass me in front of my home crowd."
Price said he expects the 6-2, 190-pound Walton to guard him and sounds as if he's looking forward to it.
"I pretty much get the best defensive player on every team, every game," Price said. "He is a great defensive player. Good size. Very physical. I know he will present some problems.
"It's going to be a tough challenge come Saturday, but I'll be up for it, and I'm sure he will too."
When the Spartans gathered late Thursday night at their team hotel to watch highlights of Connecticut's best players, the voice of Walton -- or coach Walton as he is known -- could be heard in the darkness as if he were an assistant coach.
"I live with the guy. He watches so much film, so much basketball," center Goran Suton said. "He dribbles the basketball around the apartment. He drives me crazy."
Walton, who averaged just 5.3 points, isn't known for his offense. But he did score a career-high 18 points in the second round against Southern Cal to put the Spartans in the regional semifinals for the eighth time in 12 years.
His defense in the next two rounds kept a streak alive for the elite basketball program.
Since Izzo succeeded Jud Heathcote in 1995, every player who has played for the Spartans for four years has been on a Final Four team.
"It means so much to know I help keep that streak alive," Walton said. "Hopefully, we're not done yet."
Whether the Spartans win or lose today, Walton's impact will be a lasting one.
Izzo said he made the mistake of valuing talent over toughness before recruiting Walton out of Lima, Ohio, to bring the program back to its blue-collar roots.
For Walton, it all starts on defense -- always has, even when he was just a kid.
"I started getting a name for it. I could stop people," Walton said.
Next stop, Connecticut.
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