Trash talking in basketball comes with a set of unwritten, but impossible-to-forget rules. Among the most important of these dictums: It doesn’t leave the court.
In the second half of Michigan’s 65-49 win over the Buckeyes on Tuesday, Zavier Simpson fell to the court after being on the business end of a hard screen from Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson. As soon as the play was over, Simpson popped up, yelling and pointing at the Buckeye center.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole and junior center Jon Teske came armed with words of their own. Wesson responded to both players, and he and Teske exchanged shoves, prompting officials to separate the two.
“We don’t share those,” Simpson said when asked about the incident.
But therein lies the beauty of trash talk: to the extent that its impact can be quantified, you don’t have to know what, exactly, was said in order to do so.
The anatomy of that skirmish sums up a game that rode the emotional highs and lows of one of the fiercest rivalries in all of college sports. It sums up a team that prides itself on beating you down physically and mentally. And it sums up a team that wants to let you know that in the worst way.
“A game like this is huge emotionally, especially with it being a rivalry,” Poole said. “Obviously they’re a really good team. Being able to have the fire and the energy definitely sets a tone, being able to just take everything personally, that’s the type of game it was today.”
By now, if you know anything about the Michigan men’s basketball team, you know that toughness starts with its junior point guard — who had no hesitation in calling himself the leader of it all.
“Everybody’s tough on the court until things really get deep,” Simpson said. “That’s when you know who’s really tough. … It’s about who's going to take the charge, who’s going to grab that rebound, who’s going to dive on the floor, who’s going to make sure the team mindset is great. That’s really toughness.”
Simpson’s proven that toughness many times over. One thing he hadn’t done before Tuesday night, though, was record a triple-double.
Simpson scored with his signature skyhook, and he even hit an uncharacteristic pullup 3-pointer among his 11 points. His 12 assists came in just about every conceivable form: post feeds, kick-outs to open shooters and fast break dimes. But the 6-foot-tall Simpson also corralled 10 rebounds, constantly scrapping against much larger men.
On the other end of the court, Simpson stayed busy guarding Ohio State’s C.J. Jackson and keeping him off the foul line, where he found success early. And it was his chase-down block of Wesson in transition that helped spark the fracas in the first place.
“You can’t say enough about Zavier Simpson and what he accomplished today,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Triple-double is incredible, just to have the ball that much — he had 12 assists and no turnovers. He’s the sparkplug, and this game means a lot to him.
“He just competes. He's relentless in his desire to win.”
Sometimes, the Wolverines’ toughness looks just like that — their floor general setting the tone, spearheading the defense and piloting the offense to perfection.
On other occasions, it looks like Poole — more known for his flashy playmaking than his defensive grit — receiving an elbow from the Buckeyes’ Andre Wesson and drawing a charge, and then draining a deep three on the next possession.
Sometimes, it even looks like the normally mild-mannered Teske, jawing with Wesson and earning, along with Wesson, a technical foul, which sophomore forward Isaiah Livers speculated might have been the first of his lifetime.
In these instances, it’s Simpson’s fire coursing through his teammates like a potion.
“He’s a leader,” Livers said. “Coach (Beilein) mentioned earlier, the head of the snake. He’s our leader, he’s our point guard, he does it all for us.”
As Poole lay on the ground after drawing his charge, he yelled, banging his fist against his chest. Rising off the floor, he continued shouting, raising his right arm to pump up a Crisler Center crowd and a student section already in the middle of its third or fourth loud rendition of an unprintable chant directed at Michigan’s southern neighbor.
This was the Wolverines, once again, showing off their mettle and being more than happy to do so. And with Simpson setting the tone, and his team and fans following suit, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann readily admitted his young squad had no answer.
“I think we can handle it better,” Holtmann said. “I think that was the cumulation of some frustration. For a variety of reasons, I thought the game was really physical, for the bulk of the game, when it’s that physical those things kind of happen.
“We’ve got a lot of young bodies that are thrown out there, they’re trying to realize that for the first time, and I think we’re not there yet.”
Michigan, on the other hand?
“Everybody’s tough with their mouth but not tough with their play,” Simpson said. “Guys like to talk, which I appreciate, we feed off that, that gets us going. So when they do that, we’re just hungry for more.”