Ethan Sears: This is still Zavier Simpson's team
Zavier Simpson’s table wasn’t too crowded.
The date was Oct. 25, 2017, the setting was Michigan men’s basketball media day and the topic of conversation was the point guard position. As it related to Simpson though, the question was not so much one of what but of when. Jaaron Simmons had been brought in as a graduate transfer and it was only a matter of time before he supplanted Simpson as the starter. So the thinking went.
Asking around that day though, a kind of character began to emerge. Jordan Poole recounted a story of Simpson stealing the ball in a walkthrough, keeping the intensity high. Assistant coach DeAndre Haynes couldn’t recall a time in practice that Simpson’s team wasn’t winning. Finally, a question was posed to Simpson.
Who has the loudest voices on the team?
“Loudest voices,” he said, hesitating. “Loudest voices on the team. Ummm. Lemme take a look.”
He leaned back in his chair, scanning the room.
“Lemme take a look. I’m gonna let my man — I’m gonna let my people answer this. I’ll let Naji (Ozeir) and Luke (Wilson) answer this.”
It didn’t take much thinking from Wilson.
“You’re looking at him right now,” he said.
In the last 15 months, that image has grown to a crescendo. Simpson was the catalyst of the Wolverines’ rebranding as a defensive-oriented team last year. He out-willed Michigan State’s Cassius Winston — not once, but twice — gaining personal vindication against a player John Beilein initially recruited ahead of him. He is the internal voice leading a team that not only made the national title game, but has won 17 straight games to start this season.
On that media day though, Simpson was a 6-foot guard who shot below 40 percent from the field and averaged 1.6 points per game his freshman season — a direct result of his being 6-foot.
For the early part of his sophomore season, Michigan’s offense ground to a halt with Simpson on the floor. In Maui, he was benched for Eli Brooks, and Simmons still lurked as a veteran presence with scoring ability. Then, suddenly, things changed.
Simpson changed his approach to finishing at the rim, learning to go around bigger defenders in lieu of going over. He got his starting spot back. You know the rest.
The endpoint to that change in his inside shooting has come more recently, in the form of a suddenly-lethal sky-hook. Finishing is no longer a semblance of an issue — Simpson obliterated that challenge.
That takes us to Sunday, when Northwestern played Simpson to shoot. The Wildcats had done the same thing in December, with success, and, at first, it worked again. Then something clicked, and Simpson, a career 30 percent shooter from three, went 5-of-10, catalyzing a blowout.
Predictably, the questions afterward focused on that night. Beilein obliged at first, but then decided to offer a bigger-picture assessment.
“No — this young man is really special,” Beilein said. “As far as the type of grit and determination he has. You put a challenge in front of Zavier Simpson and he’s gonna eventually win. Time will run out sometimes in life, but he will eventually win if there’s a big challenge in front of him. And so that’s what it is. You challenge him, say you can’t — he gives some pretty good stares to people after he scores. Over them, around them, under them, we got another book in today. He’s gonna beat the odds.”
That goes beyond Simpson though. The Wolverines embody that mindset. They took it to a Final Four last year. They’ve taken it through 17 games this year and the results have been pretty good.
This is a group that has lost just once since Feb. 11, 2018 and, remarkably, has rarely looked dominant in doing so. For every win in which Michigan has blown the doors off North Carolina or Texas A&M, there’s another in which it has methodically ground SUNY Binghamton into dust.
It’s a culture that takes every stereotype coaches love to preach, then lives it.
“A positive culture just breeds itself,” Beilein said. “The impact that Charles Matthews has had on this program — just play defense. And Zavier, coming in here and just saying, ‘I’m gonna find my way on the court and just play defense.’ The impact it has on the young guys that they look around and all the veterans are shooting before and after practice. They’re there early. They leave late.
“I think people notice, there’s one proven formula for improvement. Not how fast you do — can be differential. There’s one proven formula and it’s hard work. And that’s what our kids do, with limited distractions. Right? Kids don’t miss class. We’re not running them. We don’t have issues in practice. And they’re still young kids. But at the same time, that’s been a big thing, too. When you don’t have a lot of distractions, you’re really allowed to coach a team.”
A few minutes before Beilein came to the podium, Simpson had been asked about his own role in creating that culture. He cut off the question.
“I just play,” he said. “Every single day, I wanna just get better with my team. Practice, I take one day at a time. I don't worry about the next day. I compete like it’s the first play. Like I’m competing for a starting spot.”
It’s a cliché. But it’s his cliché. One that his team embodies.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.