Zavier Simpson took the ball up the court to kick things off against Indiana on Sunday.
But, fairly uncharacteristically, Simpson attempted to find his man on the right side only to see the ball land squarely in the hands of a Hoosier. Rather than follow up Indiana’s opening bucket with a couple points of his own, Simpson was staring down a turnover and a less-than-ideal start.
But that would be one of his only mistakes all afternoon.
Over the next 40 minutes, Simpson turned in one of his strongest performances of the season on the way to 12 points and 11 assists. All Sunday afternoon, the Wolverines’ offense fired on all cylinders and showed its ceiling on nearly every possession — and it almost all involved No. 3 en route to a 89-65 win.
One look at the stat sheet will quickly reveal the benefactors of Simpson’s efforts distributing the ball. His presence as the floor general lends itself to a balanced box score with as many as five players scoring double digits — as was the case on Sunday.
Perhaps the most obvious benefactor of Simpson’s elevated play was freshman forward Franz Wagner, who notched a team-high 16 for Michigan, many of which came directly from Simpson’s fingertips.
But Simpson has played plenty of games with Wagner this season, so what made this go-around so different?
“I think a lot of stuff has to do with our off-ball movement,” Wagner said. “Because if two guys off the ball are just standing around, it makes it easy for one guy to be lower and one guy just staying at the top and just hooking everything up, so when he has the opportunity to get downhill, be aggressive, people are gonna collapse.
“He’s a good player, and that’s when he’s at his best, making decisions with the ball, finding open guys and we can score from there.”
As the game progressed, it became increasingly obvious just how easily Simpson was able to score on the Indiana defense. Two points off the pick-and-roll became the expectation rather than a shock at how well the offense was clicking.
Simpson’s role in Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s offense, though, may at first glance seem a bit baffling.
The first-year coach has made his philosophy abundantly clear: If you’re open, let it fly. And any offense for the Wolverines that relies on Simpson to let it fly is surely in for some rough games.
But in Howard’s words, Simpson makes teams die by a thousand cuts rather than by volume shooting from the perimeter. So when his game is on, he allows others to take the oh-so coveted open shot.
“He made some great decisions with the basketball,” Howard said. “He did a really good job of controlling the tempo of the game. One thing that was critical with him was his decision making and that he was hunting for singles. He wasn’t trying to make the home-run play. Finding guys who were open, being patient with the basketball, reading what the defense gives him.”
Earlier in the season, it wasn’t always the case that Simpson’s prolific passing ability led to knock-down jumpers from the likes of Wagner, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and others. Rather, Michigan often found itself in stretches — or entire games — of debilitatingly stagnant shooting. Wide-open looks haunted the Wolverines as they attempted to get back a semblance of the fun they were having when they cruised to an early-season tournament win in The Bahamas.
Simpson only collects 11 assists Sunday if his teammates hit the shots the team’s leader creates. Wagner and Johns, for instance, have taken immense strides in being able to execute when it matters.
Simpson only had one noticeable mistake. One turnover. So when Michigan is pointing fingers over its stagnant offense or lack of emotion, you know Simpson is most likely doing his part — and it’s going to be damn-near perfect.