Simpson set to battle with Purdue's Edwards

Friday, November 30, 2018 - 5:47pm

Junior point guard Zavier Simpson held UNC's offensive threat Coby White to zero threes on Wednesday.

Junior point guard Zavier Simpson held UNC's offensive threat Coby White to zero threes on Wednesday. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Little could Coby White know, as he drained a fourth 3-pointer, then a fifth; a sixth; a seventh — that with every trey, he was making his trip to Ann Arbor the coming Wednesday that much worse.

Little could the North Carolina point guard know, as he caught fire against Texas last Thursday, that the fire was burning bright enough to catch the eye of Zavier Simpson.

“White making those seven threes against Texas or whoever he made them against, I forget — that’s right up Zavier’s alley,” said Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein on Wednesday. “ ‘You mean I get to guard that guy? That’s exactly what I want.’ ”

For his part, the Wolverines’ junior point guard won’t admit another level of focus, merely saying he “looks forward” to these high-profile matchups. But his play in these matchups speaks for itself: he relishes the challenge.

White entered this week’s game between the Wolverines and Tar Heels scoring 15.7 points per game on 44 percent shooting from outside. In just over 20 minutes Wednesday, Simpson hounded him into a 4-for-10 performance with zero threes.

Next up for Simpson? Purdue’s Carsen Edwards — only the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year.

“He loves matchups like that, and especially against good teams,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole on Friday. “He loves to go out there and find a way to be aggressive, he just loves to compete.”

Added junior center Jon Teske: “He wants to lock down and guard the best player, and that’s usually the point guard. And he’s usually up for the challenge.”

Simpson was up for the challenge in last year’s Big Ten Tournament championship game, where he held Edwards to just 12 points on 4-for-16 shooting — perhaps the worst game of Edwards’ otherwise brilliant sophomore year, in which he averaged 18.5 points and hit 2.6 3-pointers per game.

And Edwards, an AP Preseason All-American this year, has only gotten better since. With Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards, Dakota Matthias and P.J. Thompson all graduated from last season’s Boilermaker team that made the Sweet 16, Edwards has filled the void, boosting his scoring average by almost seven points in leading them to a 5-2 start.

“Both guys are winners, and both guys have had a lot of success in their college careers and they’ve been guarding each other for three years at times,” Beilein said. “ … I know that (Simpson’s) going to see a lot of great point guards this year … But Carsen is a different one now. Twenty-five points a game, that’s special. He gets to the foul line as well, so it's going to be a difficult one, and they run great action for him as well.”

While White was only one of North Carolina’s cadre of lethal scorers, this Purdue team unquestionably belongs to Edwards. Screen-setters such as 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms can spring Edwards open, and he has plenty of space to operate — the Boilermakers take the sixth-most 3-pointers per game in the country, hitting them at a 38-percent clip.

If all else fails, Edwards has absolutely no qualms about rising and firing from anywhere on the court — he took 157 3-pointers from NBA range last season and hit 62 of them, per The Stepien.

“He has a green light as you watch him on film,” Simpson said. “A person like that, those are the hardest people to guard because you never know what type of shot they’re going to take. … You just got to try your best and try to contest every shot, and just do what you can. At the end of the day he’s going to make some tough shots. You live and you learn.”

Questions about Edwards dominated Michigan’s media availability on Friday. It’s as you might expect — he’s arguably the best player in the country. Meanwhile, Michigan’s taken on an aggressive, rugged identity on defense this season and last, and Simpson, an oft-described “pitbull,” might be the single reason why.

In spite of all the hype, Simpson remained calm. He credited a “team effort” with slowing down Edwards last March. He offered Edwards the requisite praise, stating that he has “gotten better in all areas.”

Saturday’s game has the feel and anticipation of a championship bout. Ostensibly, Michigan and Purdue are playing, but all eyes will be on Carsen Edwards versus Zavier Simpson. Even if Simpson chooses to downplay it, there’s not a more obvious storyline.

But then again, there’s not much more that needs to be said. Just Edwards’ or Simpson’s play doing the talking.

“I just play defense,” Simpson said. “I don't really think about all that.

“It’s just defense, you know?”