It was a play Creighton had seen before.
Jon Teske — with his imposing 7-foot-1, 265-pound frame — set a high-ball screen for Zavier Simpson, who, fully in control and dangling the basketball from his right hand as if it were a yo-yo, led his defender right into Teske’s torso. As Simpson peeled off, occupying two Bluejays in the process, the senior center dove towards the basket, eventually receiving a pinpoint bounce-pass and converting an easy layup underneath.
The sequence gave Michigan a seven-point cushion with just over five minutes remaining in the second half and was the fourth time the duo had connected directly off the pick-and-roll, leading to a 79-69 win.
Creighton saw that set countless times on Tuesday night — it just couldn’t stop it.
“Simpson’s hard to control,” said Bluejays coach Greg McDermott. “He is who he is for a reason. He makes great decisions with the basketball and got us stretched out some.
“Our bigs probably didn’t do a good enough job of stopping the basketball, and when we did, Simpson made the right read, either with the skip pass or finding Teske under the basket.”
Simpson was his usual self against Creighton, dictating the Wolverines’ offense and attacking the basket when the opportunity presented itself. In addition to his nine assists — five of which went to Teske — the senior point guard tallied 17 points.
For much of the first half though, junior forward Isaiah Livers and junior guard Eli Brooks were the beneficiaries of Teske’s high-ball screens. Curling off and attacking the lane, Simpson found them for open looks from deep.
But, as time went on, things opened up for Teske. Nearing halftime, Simpson found the rolling big man on consecutive possessions for two uncontested dunks.
“He was just being more patient,” Teske said. “He wasn’t forcing things. When he’s in those ball screens, he can get downhill. He’s gonna find you if you’re open — either kick it out for threes or throw it up for a lob. He’s just very creative off of those ball screens.”
With Creighton hedging on the shooters more in the second half and lacking size in its frontcourt, the Simpson-Teske pipeline was even more freeflowing. As a result, Teske scored 12 of his 17 in the final 20 minutes.
“Anytime we play a team like that, we want to use our height advantage,” Teske said. “In the first half, we were trying to, but sometimes it’s not going to really work. But (Simpson) did a great job of getting downhill and kicking it out for open threes. In the second half, that kinda opened it up for everyone downlow.”
While Michigan coach Juwan Howard prefers his team push the ball up the floor in transition, in half-court sets, his offensive system is predicated on his guard’s playmaking ability coming off the high-ball screen.
Against Appalachian State, Simpson struggled with this, especially in the second half. A proven ball-handler, he uncharacteristically turned the ball over six times — five of which came after halftime.
As Howard is quick to point out though, transitioning from John Beilein’s offense to his own will take some time, even for Simpson.
“Well, it’s a new offense for him,” Howard said. “For all of us. There’s going to be some growing pains throughout the process. Hopefully, with the growing pains that there are, we get better. But I trust we will.”
The growing pains Simpson experienced against the Mountaineers were absent on Tuesday. With Simpson orchestrating the pick-and-roll to perfection, the Wolverines improved over the course of the game.
And, the Bluejays had no answer for it.
“He’s very crafty and smart,” Howard said. “Our bigs can do a better job of screening, which I will help them get better in that area by screening and screening angles, to allow Zavier to be able to get downhill, to make plays for himself, or for others.”