There was a moment, Zavier Simpson remembers, about eight minutes before the national championship game two years ago where Michigan was about to go out and warm up. He looked around, seeing a cavernous Alamodome billowing out from the tunnel, the possibilities of the night all still in front of him.
A couple hours later, on the back end of a resounding loss to Villanova, Simpson didn’t want to look at anyone or anything. He walked back down the tunnel with his head wrapped in a towel, mute to any words of encouragement. In the locker room afterwards, Simpson, who does not speak after losses, was made to do an interview with Big Ten Network. He spoke, never looking up, never making eye contact, a quiet anger seeping out of him.
That moment beforehand, in the tunnel, though, was what came to Simpson’s mind on Wednesday, asked about his favorite moments in a Michigan uniform.
“That was definitely one of the best experiences of my life,” Simpson said.
Since that March, when Simpson turned himself into the avatar of a Michigan team that won 14 straight games, blowing through the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA West Regional, he has been the unquestioned leader of the program. On Thursday, he’ll play his last game at Crisler Center and be honored at Senior Night.
He doesn’t think he’ll cry. His dad, Quincey, probably will, he said.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Simpson said. “It’s definitely going to be emotional. I’m thankful for everything that I’ve done, thankful for the support that I have through the fans.”
In light of that sophomore season, and a junior year in which he led a Michigan team that felt like a national title contender at its best moments, Simpson’s senior year has been underwhelming in ways. The Wolverines’ defense has dipped off — and when they beat Michigan State last month, it was Eli Brooks who drew the matchup against Cassius Winston. Moreover, they’ll likely go into the NCAA Tournament with an uphill climb to get out of the first weekend.
All that has come with a backdrop of controversy for Simpson, who was suspended in late January after a traffic incident in which he lied to police about his name, after crashing a car belonging to Chrislan Manuel, the wife of athletic director Warde Manuel. That has dragged on as recently as last week, when the Detroit Free Press published a video of the incident.
Still, that all serves to belie a reality that, within the program, Simpson still has a respect afforded to few. In huddles, Juwan Howard has let him take the clipboard and draw up after-timeout plays. Coming off Sunday’s loss at Ohio State, he organized the team for a Monday breakfast.
“That’s some of the things you don’t see,” senior center Jon Teske said.
“Great leaders for their teammates,” Howard said, speaking of Simpson and Teske, his two seniors. “Great examples of how they’ve gone about their work in practice, on off days, as well as during the season.”
In Michigan’s first game against Nebraska, without Simpson, Eli Brooks forgot a couple times that, as the point guard, he had to get the ball after made baskets. That had always been Simpson’s job. On Thursday, in the second game against Nebraska, it will be again.
As his time in a Michigan uniform winds down, Simpson has started to reflect more. He’ll sit in his room or walk down his block, taking the time to think, and feel thankful for the last four years.
“With things going so fast, it’s important that you stay spiritually grounded,” Simpson said. “Which is something my mom has always instilled in me since I was a young boy. Definitely just want to make sure that I’m just trying to embrace every single opportunity, take advantage of everything.”
It’s unlikely this season ends in the same place as 2018. Barring the Wolverines catching the same sort of lightning in a bottle, Simpson’s career will likely be finished off in the sterile trappings of an earlier NCAA Tournament host site.
At this moment, though, that matters little to him.
“I’m embracing every second of it,” Simpson said. “I don’t have that many games left here besides tomorrow. Just embracing it. I felt like I left a good mark, and I’m hopefully going to leave a better mark tomorrow by getting a (win).”