DES MOINES, Iowa — Blowouts aren’t usually exciting.
Especially in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Even more so when a top seed expectedly walks all over a mid-major. A visit to the winning team’s locker room tells you why — there are bigger tests to pass, grander goals down the road.
But talking to Zavier Simpson on Thursday night, you’d think that his second-seeded Wolverines had won a Final Four game — not a 74-55 domination of No. 15 seed Montana that didn’t feel even that close. The junior point guard answered questions while overflowing with happiness, 180 degrees from his normal reserved and intense demeanor.
“We’re just blessed to be in this position,” Simpson said in response to a question about the adjustment from facing the Big Ten’s physical teams to the Grizzlies, who didn’t start a player taller than 6-foot-7. “I’m happy to have a chance to play against a difficult team like that which has a great defense that can switch all ball-screens. We’re just honestly excited, we’re gonna enjoy this one tonight.”
To Simpson, this wasn’t just a 2-over-15 snoozer. Simpson’s ebullience held a tone of thankful relief — the relief of someone who, weary from a long quest in search of some secret, has finally found what they’ve been searching for.
All season long, Michigan has been flustered when opponents switch on ball screens. Athletic forwards such as Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman have disrupted this focal point of the Wolverines’ offense, stepping out onto the perimeter and preventing easy blow-bys from guards. Meanwhile, Michigan hasn’t been able to take advantage of the mismatches defenses surrender when they switch — like guards having to defend the 7-foot-1 Jon Teske.
Feeding Teske has been an obvious solution for a while now. The Wolverines just haven’t done it effectively or consistently, and often, haven’t even tried to.
But against Montana, that changed, as Teske dropped 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Simpson faced intense perimeter pressure from the Grizzlies, but constantly broke through and found mismatches — ending up with 10 assists. When Teske touched the ball in the post, it was an automatic basket, and this was with defenders impeding him and grabbing his jersey.
“We used to just think when we had a switch, we had to drive the big guy to the basket every time,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers on Friday. “But now it’s a little different. We take advantage of our 7-foot-1 guy down there who keeps the ball high and finishes above at the rim. When we got a switch, we gotta just take our time and find the open man.”
Still, this is Montana. According to assistant coach Saddi Washington, the Wolverines were able to find their center because of the ease of throwing entry passes — after all, the Grizzlies don’t have a big like Tillman to deny them.
Michigan coach John Beilein said his team gets better every game. But it still isn’t where he wants it to be when attacking switches, thanks to inconsistent passing and a tendency to settle for contested jumpers.
“The clock is ticking down, the weakside is sneaking in, your pass has to be on-time, on-target and sometimes our guys aren't as good at that,” Beilein said. “ … You can have that matchup you want inside, but if you throw that ball over his head or to the wrong side where the weakside is waiting there, it doesn't work. Then the other end is attacking the big on the perimeter. We’re still too much of a stepback team instead of an attack team.”
If the Wolverines wish to beat Florida on Saturday and advance to the Sweet 16 for a third straight year, that can’t be the case.
“We’re pretty sure we’re gonna see some switches tomorrow, which we’ve been scouting,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “We’ll be ready for it because we’ve been seeing it in our league. Lot of teams switch against us, and it made us a better team.”
Montana had no answer for anything Michigan did, but the Gators will be a different story. Long, versatile and athletic, they rank 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and force turnovers on over 20 percent of opponents’ possessions.
Just as the Grizzlies tried to do, Florida will look to stifle Simpson through pressure — but unlike Montana, it has the length to do so effectively.
“Hopefully we can kinda swallow (Simpson) up a little bit with our length and just make it tough for him,” said Gator guard Jalen Hudson. “Obviously he’s a really good passer, a really good player, so just try to make him difficult for him all night as he’s coming off ball screens.”
Florida’s own task won’t be easy — its 58th-ranked offense against Michigan’s second-best defense doesn’t bode well for an upset. But the Gators don’t get blown out often: Nine of their losses have come by less than seven points. And if they can prevent the Wolverines from scoring themselves, it could lead to a toss-up down the stretch.
But if Michigan can harness everything it has learned and everything it is capable of doing to attack switching defenses, it might be able to avoid that outcome.
“We got guys like when Teske’s shooting his three and he’s shooting his bow and arrow, things like that, we’re a different team,” Haynes said. “If we can get downhill off a switch, because we got big guards, we got guards who can shoot it, that’s been an addition to our offense that will make us better.”