Simmons turning a corner as regular season comes to a close

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 6:57pm

Jaaron Simmons played 12 minutes in Michigan's win over Iowa.

Jaaron Simmons played 12 minutes in Michigan's win over Iowa. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

Jaaron Simmons ambled into the media room like he was a regular.

In reality, the fifth-year senior hadn’t been in a post-game interview since the Nov. 3 exhibition against Grand Valley State, but his confident gait to the top right corner of the room would have made you think otherwise. Just as he did over three months ago, Simmons entered donning a mesh, long-sleeve Michigan shirt with a sweat-soaked Gatorade towel draped around his neck.

Simmons had just seen his most playing time — 12 minutes — since Dec. 16 against Detroit Mercy, catalyzing the Wolverines’ eventual runaway win over Iowa on Wednesday. He cracked a smile.

“It feels good,” he said, “but it’s the same thing. I’ve gotta keep working everyday, continue to prepare myself everyday. That’s really it.”

The smile had faded by the end of his simple answer — the quiet sentiment of someone who doesn’t want to celebrate his brief moment in the spotlight too much. His production in Wednesday’s matchup, though, demonstrated exactly what John Beilein brought him in to do in the first place. And that’s something to celebrate.

In the beginning minutes of the contest, the Hawkeyes’ extended zone defense visibly shook starting point guard Zavier Simpson. The sophomore ranks fourth in the Big Ten with a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio, but coughed it up three times in the game’s first 2:17, helping amount to a 7-0 deficit. Thus came the earliest entrance into a game in Simmons’ Michigan career.

He channeled his Ohio University days as a confident ball-handler, staving off Iowa defenders in its early full-court press and commanding his teammates around the court. Shortly into his shift, he drilled a three to lessen the margin to only one point.

Five minutes later, Simmons was still in and Michigan had a three-point lead. He stole a telegraphed pass at the top of the key from Iowa’s Brady Ellingson and charged ahead for the fast break. Simmons doubtfully turned his head to see who was chasing him down — but nobody was even close, and he smoothly lofted it off the glass and in.

For the first time on both sides of the ball, it looked like the Simmons experiment was finally bringing positive results, as he registered a five-point, four-assist performance. The statline appeared as a blip on the radar, but in just 12 minutes for a team devoid of energy, it was the perfect display.

“It takes a whole lot to learn the offense, and it’s a complicated offense,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, “but I think you’re starting to see him grow.”

Added Simmons: “It’s easier to get into a flow because I know more. I know more of what we’re doing. In the beginning of the season it was very challenging. Going out there, you’re thinking a lot, me personally, because I’m learning new stuff every single day.

“Now I’m starting to get it. Now I don’t have to think what play we call, what we gotta do now. It’s more ‘we’re gonna run this’ and I can flow into it.”

Simmons’ struggles have been no secret. After Michigan’s Jan. 21 game against Rutgers, Beilein said the graduate transfer “hasn’t worked out so far,” referring to his inability to play comfortably in already limited minutes.

The rocky transition, Simmons claims, was a result of complex schemes that he never saw with the Bobcats. Remaining mentally tough was the only way for Simmons to get over the change.

“(I) never ask why. ‘Why am I not playing or why am I not doing this?’ It’s just ‘How can I get better and put myself in a position to get out there?’ ” Simmons said. “... I don’t question stuff. I just — I’m ready. Just battle it out. Tough situations will come, tough people last.”

While his time with the Wolverines hasn’t gone as planned, he is on the verge of going somewhere he’s never been: the NCAA Tournament. But first, he will say goodbye to his short-lived Michigan tenure during Senior Day against No. 8 Ohio State on Sunday.

Simmons, ironically, still calls himself a freshman given all of the new plays and terminology thrusted upon him in his lone season. As fast as he realized he was learning stuff he had never seen before, his final year was ending. And while he hopes to extend it to the uncharted territory of the Tournament, the enthusiasm of the team would say otherwise.

“The way coach be talking, he’s talking like if we lose a game we might not even make it to the tournament,” Simmons said. “I’m just hoping we get there.”

For Simmons, the tournament is priority number one. At one point, it may have been the NBA or even just filling Derrick Walton Jr.’s shoes. Later on, it may have been finding some semblance of his game from his Ohio days. Now, those goals are far, far behind him. He’s shown flashes of improvement as the regular season dwindles, but it remains to be seen if it is too little, too late.

If the Wolverines take care of business down the stretch, though, Simmons will have the opportunity to play in his first tournament game, spotlight or not.

That’s something to smile about.