Zavier Simpson sat at a podium in Uncasville, Conn. on Sunday afternoon, somewhere inside the Mohegan Sun casino complex, fielding a slew of questions from reporters after Michigan won the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. It was a nearly identical situation to Saturday, when the junior guard was called on to answer questions about the Wolverines’ win over George Washington to advance to the championship game.
Only this time, he was flanked by freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis and junior center Jon Teske — replacing sophomore guard Jordan Poole and redshirt junior Charles Matthews from the previous day.
Simpson’s repeated presence on the podium was no product of circumstance.
Poole and Matthews stole Saturday’s headlines, with a combined 7-for-10 3-point shooting performance that sparked Michigan to its best offensive day of the season. That duo went quiet on Sunday, totaling just nine points as Brazdeikis and Teske led the Wolverines past Providence, 66-47.
“Everybody can play on our team,” Brazdeikis said. “It’s not gonna be one person that’s gonna be the best player on the court every day. It’s gonna be, one day (Simpson), one day Jon (Teske), one day Charles (Matthews).”
But both days, Simpson was the stalwart at the heart of the Wolverines’ success on each end of the floor. Known as one of the nation’s premier defenders, his near-triple double on Saturday put his offense in the spotlight, as he joined in on the 3-point barrage with four of his own — a sixth of his total from last season.
“For him to have that success, to make those four threes, that’s a lot of work,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after Saturday’s win. “Now let’s go do it again, whoever we play tomorrow.”
Simpson didn’t replicate his 3-point performance on Sunday — he attempted just five field goals, none from beyond the arc — but played an equally sized role in the Wolverines’ win.
After allowing a season-high 61 points against the Colonials (let that sink in), Michigan’s defense was back to its stifling form against Providence, limiting the Friars to 47 points on 16-for-57 shooting. As usual, Simpson was at the crux of that.
Before the game, Providence’s success was deemed reliant on point guard Alpha Diallo, who came in averaging 19.5 points and five assists per game. Matched up against Simpson, he turned the ball over four times and managed just 10 points on three-of-13 shooting — good for his worst KenPom offensive rating in 15 games.
“I think of defense as my pride,” Simpson said after the game. “I just want to pick everybody up, try my best to not let them score or try my best to help somebody who may not be in the right position. So, at the end of the day, we stress defense.”
While only scoring six points against the Friars, he remained a key cog of the Wolverines’ offense, with eight of their 15 assists.
When Providence cut Michigan’s lead to two points near the end of the first half, it was Simpson who assisted a three and scored a basket of his own on consecutive possessions to extend the lead back to seven. By the time the Friars scored again, the lead was in double-digits for good.
As usual, the Wolverines had Simpson’s contributions on both ends to thank for that.
“He is a bit of a coach on the floor — a stubborn coach on the floor,” Beilein said. “But he is just all in to win for Michigan.”