In the locker room before Tuesday’s contest against Michigan State, John Beilein posted a picture of a dog on the board where he does his pregame talks.
He wanted his team to look into the eyes of the image of the “junkyard dog” to understand the anger and the desperation the canine had.
It wasn’t meant to be a cute pregame talk. The Michigan coach had been trying to get his team to play with that sort of attitude for weeks.
Perhaps all it took was a visual aid.
Beilein’s team finally responded, bullying the Spartans all night and making plays that revolved around the toughness idealized by the dog.
“Today was perfect,” Beilein said. “They were there. They were angry. They were like junkyard dogs. That was the whole idea. We had to go out there angry and play with that edge we so desperately need.”
One of the more surprising players who took the night’s motto to heart was Xavier Simpson. The freshman guard was averaging just eight minutes per game and had scored just nine total points in conference play entering Tuesday.
With senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. carrying Michigan through the most recent stretch of games, Beilein knew he had to find a more effective way for Simpson to get involved and make an impact to take the load off of Walton.
Simpson’s struggles in Big Ten play have revolved heavily around not being comfortable with the increased pace. Though the freshman once scored 65 points in a high school game, he hasn’t yet seemed comfortable putting it all together at the collegiate level.
Beilein has primarily used Simpson in tight defensive situations in recent games, subbing him in for Walton or junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman when the Wolverines need stops on defense.
But assistant coach Saddi Washington, who has worked closely with Simpson, approached Beilein this week and proposed tweaking the freshman’s gameplan.
“Saddi Washington’s been doing a great job and he really suggested that he played more today,” Beilein said. “He also simplified (Simpson’s) package. He understands everything we do, but the timing of it is still just a little bit off.”
Washington’s adjustment, paired with Beilein’s pregame message, created the perfect storm for Simpson to have the breakout game he had been seeking all season.
In his 12 minutes of play, Simpson was a menace to Michigan State guards on both ends of the court.
Defensively, he built upon his recent solid performances by being more aggressive and taking advantage of the Spartans’ inability to protect the ball. Simpson didn’t record any steals, but much of the night, he was either putting his teammates in positions to make them or forcing Michigan State players to turn the ball over.
It was on the offensive end where Simpson really showed signs of growth. The freshman, who was shooting just 24 percent from the field before Tuesday’s contest, went 3-for-4 from the field while also dishing out two assists. The six-foot guard showed a new willingness to drive to the hoop and absorb whatever contact met him near the basket.
“I’m a (more) complete player than I was a month ago and a week ago,” Simpson said. “So the coaches are teaching me and I’m embracing the challenge. Obviously, it was hard at first, but I just have to stick with it and trust the process.”
After Simpson drained his lone 3-point attempt, Michigan State called a timeout and Michigan’s bench exploded, mobbing him when he reached the Wolverine sideline.
But no other Michigan player will welcome Simpson’s emergence as much as Walton.
Despite playing the best stretch of basketball of his career, Walton still needs help from his fellow guards to help him lead the offense or fill in when he needs a rest.
“I knew for a fact, down the road (Simpson would break out),” Walton said. “He’s a really tough kid and he always sticks to it. Nights like this don’t surprise me. I’m really excited for him and I’m hoping he can build on it.”
Walton himself has been part of the problem as to why Simpson hasn’t had this type of performance, simply because it has been impossible for Beilein to sub out the senior during his recent run.
But Simpson is in no way deterred by staying on the bench and watching his mentor perform like he has.
“Derrick (has been) playing tremendous the last few games,” Simpson said. “I can’t be on the bench and wish he got more fouls or wish a negative impact on him. He’s been playing great.
“When a guy like that is doing his job and getting us wins, you have to do what you have to do.”
Walton and Simpson did spend some time on the court together Tuesday, with the freshman playing the point and the senior at the ‘2.’ Beilein was able to use that combination, and one in which Walton, Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman were all on the court together. Beilein will hope Simpson’s form carries over into the future so he can use these lineups again in order to give the Wolverines a different look.
“He actually surprised me with the three-guard lineup,” Simpson said. “I knew we could do it. We’re all pretty aggressive and at the time that’s what (Beilein) wanted, so that’s what we did. I felt like it was great for the team.”
Simpson’s emergence has been a long time coming, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for Michigan. His “junkyard dog” mentality and the simplified game can give the Wolverines the boost off the bench they’ve been looking for to power them through the upcoming stretch of the Big Ten schedule.
“It feels great,” Simpson said. “Not just for me, it takes pressure off Derrick. It takes pressure off other players also. For me to come in and give that extra boost I felt like I not only helped myself, but also, most importantly, helped the team.”