Simpson, Wolverines shifting focus to Montana

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 6:41pm

Zavier Simpson is in the mindset of taking the NCAA tournament one game at a time, an attitude that is spreading to the rest of the team.

Zavier Simpson is in the mindset of taking the NCAA tournament one game at a time, an attitude that is spreading to the rest of the team. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

DES MOINES, Iowa — As reporters stood outside the Michigan locker room last Sunday in Chicago, awaiting the all-clear to enter, Zavier Simpson walked by.

Or at least that was the assumption based on the name on the back of his jersey. Simpson, eyes fixated on the ground in front of him, adorned a draped Gatorade towel over his face. When reporters followed him into the locker room moments later, the junior point guard had disappeared. Eventually, he re-emerged, changed into an all-blue Michigan tracksuit. Questions, though, remained unanswered. When a reporter dared to interrupt his path from door to shower, Simpson gave a dismissive excuse before disappearing for good.

So Wednesday afternoon in Des Moines, when a local TV reporter asked Simpson whether losing to Michigan State was “tough,” those within earshot momentarily held their collective breath.

“Yeah, we lost the championship,” Simpson responded, before breaking into laughter. “Yeah, it was tough.”

It may not have been the response the reporter was looking for, but it’s far from the answer Simpson would have given three days ago.

For 24 hours after the loss to the Spartans, Michigan stewed — and its coaching staff let it. But Monday afternoon, with just three days until its NCAA Tournament journey would get underway against 15th-seeded Montana, Wolverines coach John Beilein knew it was time to turn the corner.

“You got 24 hours to feel sorry for yourselves, including the coaches,” Beilein said. “We have to move on. We played a great game, we didn’t play as efficiently as we needed to. And Michigan State played a great, efficient game. But it’s time to move on now.”

So, with a day off practice, Michigan held a “logistics” meeting, as sophomore forward Isaiah Livers described it, in advance of its tournament opener.

Within minutes, Beilein knew something was off. Heads, as they were on Sunday in Chicago, remained down, faces sullen — far from the atmosphere that typically fills a two-seed’s locker room just days before the start of the NCAA Tournament.

“(Beilein) was just saying, ‘Pick your heads back up, we have to bounce back cause the tournament’s right next week,’ ” said freshman forward Colin Castleton. “I think everybody’s attitudes, it’s pretty good, the vibes are pretty good. So everybody’s putting that in the past.”

Still, practice on Tuesday — the last day Michigan would watch film of the Michigan State game — remained lackluster, by Beilein’s own account. The proclaimed focus may have fully shifted to Montana, but on the court, the Wolverines were still mired in their weekend performance.

Then, as he often does in such situations, Simpson took over — holding everybody accountable for their performances, primarily Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews, and demanding Michigan sprint the floor, according to assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. Livers’ account of the day centers on Simpson’s emphasis on instilling the same focus in practice that it will need once the tournament starts.

The result? A Wednesday practice that Beilein labeled “terrific.”

“It took a little bit of time just to get the mindset right,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “There’s some disappointment there, dealing with the loss in that environment, having been through that type of game. So that’s human nature and part of sports, but our kids are really resilient and we’re ready to go.”

Now, just three days after a Big Ten title eluded them in Chicago, the phrase of choice throughout much of the Wolverines’ locker room is “national championship.” Haynes mentioned it five times in two minutes. For Yaklich, it took just one question to bring up the ultimate goal.

For Simpson, though, the word of choice remains “Montana.” And despite Sunday’s scarring defeat, that attitude is catching on.

“There’s a lot of people at home right now trying to figure out what they’re gonna do with their life,” Haynes said. “And we woke up this morning, we’re able to play another game of basketball.”