IOWA CITY — Zavier Simpson crossed midcourt and whipped a pass from the top of the key to the corner, as he’s done countless times before.
With the Michigan men’s basketball team trailing by six with 13 minutes to play at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the senior point guard found an open Eli Brooks on the other end of his missile.
The junior guard checked his feet before pulling up and draining the three, giving Simpson career assist No. 576. With it, he passed Rumeal Robinson (1988-90) for second-most in program history.
When junior walk-on forward C.J. Baird was asked about Simpson’s ascension through Michigan’s record book on Thursday, he didn’t even know the number. It’s gotten that high. Now in his third year playing alongside Simpson, Baird has grown accustomed to exactly this.
“That speaks to (Simpson’s) feel for the game and understanding of his teammates,” Baird said. “ … He knows what we’re going to do before we do it.”
Simpson entered Friday night’s game leading the nation with 142 assists — over 30 more than the next highest total. He’s on pace for a hair over 275 assists, which would break the program’s single-season record of 260. Trey Burke set that record in 2012-13 en route to claiming Naismith College Player of the Year honors.
With Simpson, though, it boils down to preparation.
“Most times when I walk in, (Simpson) is doing some sort of workout,” Baird said. “ … What he does is he works on a lot of game situations and stuff like that in his workouts. It’s working out with a purpose, working out smart, as we like to say. … He’s working on stuff he will see in a game and stuff he has seen in the past so he can hone his craft.”
When Simpson first began his climb on Michigan’s assists list, the likes of Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson were on the receiving end of his passes. Since taking over the starting point guard role halfway through his sophomore year, he’s proved capable of creating passing angles under almost any set of circumstances.
To first-year coach Juwan Howard, that value can’t be overstated.
“He’s one of the best players in the country and one of the best point guards there is,” Howard said Thursday. “He’s a smart, crafty guard who knows how to take advantage of a defense. He’s great at reading ball screens, he’s great at reading coverages overall. He wants to make the right play to put us in a position to score.
“There are times he makes mistakes like any player, but I’m just so happy he’s playing for us. I knew before I took the job that I was getting a point guard who’s one of the best point guards in NCAA basketball.”
With Robinson now in the rearview mirror, Simpson trails only Gary Grant (731) in career assists — a record set in 1988. Should Michigan play 20 more games this season — a number that hinges on the Wolverines’ postseason fate — it’d take about about eight assists per game to dethrone Grant.
And if anyone is up for the challenge, it’s the player Howard so often refers to as his “Tom Brady.”