COLLEGE PARK — Zavier Simpson got up from his seat as 17,950 fans taunted his backup. There were just over 11 minutes to go in Saturday’s game and Maryland held a two-point lead after hitting five of its last seven field goals. Simpson, sitting on the bench with three fouls, watched as Eli Brooks tossed up an airball and chants started to come down.
Then, the junior guard checked in. The Terrapins didn’t make another shot from the field until there was 3:36 to go in the game. Michigan won, 69-62, staying in the hunt for the Big Ten race and notching a marquee road win.
Standing at the podium 20 minutes after the buzzer, John Beilein took a long pause and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, trying to find the right way to describe Simpson’s presence on the floor.
“Security blanket, is that the wrong word to say?” he asked, before answering himself. “It probably is. I just think there’s a confidence factor when he’s out there.”
At every point where it seemed the Wolverines might lose momentum on Sunday, there was Simpson, their steadying force. He finished with 12 points, 10 assists and one missed shot from the field. Three separate times, he hit hook shots that prompted cries of disbelief from the crowd. For the second time in as many weeks, he locked Maryland point guard Anthony Cowan in a box.
When the game hit its teetering point, Michigan holding a six-point lead with three minutes left, Simpson assisted a 3-pointer, got to the rim for a layup, then assisted another layup. A guy who once ran Michigan’s offense with timidity, drifting inside the arc and stopping, is now the key to everything.
A loss in College Park would have been the Wolverines’ fourth in their last nine games, with a trip to Michigan State looming as the regular-season finale next Saturday. Even with Charles Matthews still injured, it would have prompted a serious look in the mirror for a team that wants to do something this month.
Instead, Simpson conducted Michigan’s orchestra, note-perfect.
“I still can hear his voice when he wasn’t on the floor,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “And you knew when he comes on the court, there’s gonna be some intensity.”
Livers saw that for the first time back on one of his first days in uniform for the Wolverines last season. Assistant coach Luke Yaklich, then newly-minted, was conducting what Livers called Sunday, “this terrible drill that I don’t recommend for anybody.” For 15 minutes, Michigan’s roster was crouched down in a defensive stance, sliding back and forth.
Simpson didn’t let a single person off the hook.
“If you gave up, he’s on you,” Livers said. “Like, ‘Why are you giving up? Get up! Get up! Get up! We’re gonna be solid. We’re gonna be a great defensive team this year.’
“And obviously, numbers don’t lie.”
That was back in 2017, before Simpson got benched for Eli Brooks — let alone turned the Wolverines into a cult of his own personality, led them to a Final Four and took them into this March with a shot at a regular-season conference title. This goes beyond his caricatured defensive impact though.
Back then, every time Simpson touched the ball, the offense stopped, and every time John Beilein spoke to the media, a referendum on the starting point guard spot ensued. On Sunday, the ball kept moving and Michigan was plus-14 in 32 minutes with Simpson on the floor in a game it won by just seven.
“He was a scorer in high school. And most point guards are like that,” Beilein said. “They come in and they still think maybe the key to that team’s success is them getting buckets. And it’s not. … Be a point guard who can score. Don’t be a scorer who can play point guard. Right? And that’s where he sees himself now, as a point guard who can score.”
Growth is the expectation in college basketball. But not like this.
Watch Simpson operate the pick-and-roll, spinning passes and finding driving angles, and you would never know he was ever anything but this. Someone who Beilein defers to on what to run. Someone who has earned every bit of his teammates trust.
“He knows where I am,” said junior center Jon Teske. “I know where he’s gonna go.”
And, wherever Michigan goes this month, Simpson will be at the center of it all.