Orion Sang Detroit Free Press
Published 6:03 PM EST Jan 14, 2019
The whistle blew before the ball left Zavier Simpson’s hands.
Michigan basketball’s junior point guard watched his shot travel through the air, arcing up and then cleanly through the net.
The ball found its way to a ref as play reset. A foul had been called. Simpson’s line from 3-point range remained 0-for-2.
His made shot wouldn’t count. But it allowed him to keep shooting, which is how the Wolverines (17-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) blew out Northwestern on Sunday night, 80-60.
It all goes back to Dec. 4, when Michigan coach John Beilein benched Simpson after he missed three consecutive 3s late in the second half of Michigan’s 62-60 win over the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
In the first game between the two teams, Northwestern sagged off Simpson — a career 29.8 percent 3-point shooter — and dared him to let it fly from outside. He went 0-for-5, took a seat on the bench and watched as the Wildcats nearly pulled off the upset.
So Northwestern used the same strategy in Sunday’s game. And after Simpson missed his first two 3s, Beilein found himself on the fence.
Then Simpson launched his third.
“That one right there, I was about to just say, ‘Settle down now. You’re gonna shoot it when you go back in. Just settle down,’ ” Beilein said. “And then I saw that one go in and I said, ‘No, he’s okay. He’s okay.’ ”
He made his next two 3s. Then he made three more in the second half, including two on consecutive possessions, punctuated by a step-back 3. Simpson finished with a career-high 24 points, and he did it by beating a defense designed to stop him, making 5-of-10 3s.
[ Michigan basketball’s punishing consistency keys record start ]
“I felt like they were going to do the strategy because it worked last time,” Simpson said. “So what team wouldn’t? Then again, I just have to keep doing things I’ve been doing and stay confident.”
The outing brought Simpson’s 3-point shooting this season to 33.3 percent on 2.8 attempts per game (16-for-48). It would be a career-high year in 3-point percentage, if it holds. The number also fits into Beilein’s offensive philosophy, where the goal is to score a point per possession.
“He was better than that today, obviously,” Beilein said. “If he goes 1-for-3 all the time, we’re going to take that. We’re going to take that because he gets so many other people open. Going 5-for-10, that’s more than a point per possession there, for sure.”
The math makes sense, as does the potential impact on this team’s ceiling. Michigan already has a top offense, efficient in how it spreads teams out and utilizes multiple options on any given night. If Simpson can force teams to play him closely, that makes it easier for him to attack the rim or distribute, which opens the offense up even more for teammates.
Simpson was diplomatic when asked if he took Northwestern’s laid-back defense personally.
“I just play the game,” he said. “If that’s the scouting report, that’s the scouting report.”
An understandable answer, though Simpson’s coach was more forthcoming.
“He’s such a competitor,” Beilein said, “he saw that as a personal affront to his ability and this time he just let it come to him.”
Simpson has been challenged since he arrived at Michigan. He was a high-scoring, highly touted recruit who found himself sitting on the bench as a freshman, a non-factor on offense.
In a couple years, he has transformed himself into a lockdown defender and a penetrator with a lethal skyhook and array of nifty passes. He has the type of all-around game that invoked Illinois coach Brad Underwood to call him the “MVP” of Big Ten play thus far.
Which is why it’s no surprise Simpson approached Northwestern’s defense as the next test — or that he aced it.
“This young man is really special as far as the type of grit and determination he has,” Beilein said. “You put a challenge in front of Zavier Simpson and he’s going to eventually win. Time will run out sometimes in life, but he will eventually win if there’s a big challenge in front of him.”
Contact Orion Sang: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang.
Download our Wolverines Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!
- Mass shootings: Key developments in Texas and Ohio
- YP Letters: Moorland for grouse shoot key to wildlife
- Buckeyes look to continue winning ways today against Eastern Michigan
- "The Simpsons" chided for "sad" response to Apu controversy
- Four-star running back commit Rahmir Johnson lured to Huskers by Scott Frost's offense
- Michigan Governor Pardoned 'Career Drunk Driver' on Way Out
- Oklahoma bulls over Michigan behind Griffin
- Texas Tech Beats Michigan St 61-52; Advances to First National Championship
- 18 candidates aiming to replace Rick Snyder as Michigan governor
- Candidate: Michigan city should be as white 'as possible'