NEW YORK — Zavier Simpson was back, doing Zavier Simpson things.
When Jon Teske set a screen for the senior point guard on the left wing, Rutgers big man Miles Johnson hedged a little too hard. Simpson was one step ahead, evading the attempted hindrance with relative ease before delivering a bounce pass to Teske rolling along the baseline.
Without a Scarlet Knight in his vicinity, the senior center rocked the rim to extend Michigan’s lead to 12 points midway through the second half of its 69-63 win over No. 25 Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.
The game marked Simpson’s return to action following a suspension for violating team policy. He served that suspension Tuesday, when the Wolverines played — and beat — Nebraska away from home. On Friday afternoon, the program sent a press release announcing Simpson would play Saturday. Asked about the circumstances surrounding the suspension and his reinstatement, Simpson declined to give details.
“At the end of the day, you learn from your lessons because you gotta move forward,” Simpson said. “It’s not about what happens, it’s about how you react from it. Just gotta reflect on things, move forward and try to get out here and get a dub, which we did.”
In his return, Simpson looked like his usual self. Despite only scoring nine points on 1-of-5 shooting, Simpson proved once again to be the straw that stirs Michigan’s drink. He finished with ten assists — the Scarlet Knights had six assists total — four rebounds and three steals against scrappy defenders like Jacob Young and Montez Mathis.
Whether it was a pinpoint pass to Teske in the paint or a drive and dish to freshman forward Franz Wagner on the perimeter, Simpson got his teammates involved all afternoon.
“I wanted to come out here, make smart plays, play as hard as I can and play as smart as I can,” Simpson said. “At the end of the day, I just want to give it all to my teammates, making sure I’m working hard and finding them. Rutgers had a great defense so the key was finding the open man.”
Along with his 10 assists though, Simpson committed six turnovers. In the second half alone, he had five — giving the Scarlet Knights a route back into the game.
He would ultimately redeem himself. With Michigan harboring a narrow advantage down the stretch and his teammates getting sped up offensively in the back and forth action, Simpson slowed things down, making sure the Wolverines got the best look possible.
Down by three, with 24 seconds remaining, Rutgers fouled Simpson off the inbounds play. Amidst chants and taunts raining down on him from the Scarlet Knights’ faithful and the pressure of closing out the game resting squarely on his shoulders, Simpson sank both from the foul line to give Michigan a five-point edge. A possession later, following a pull-up three from Rutgers’ Geo Baker, Simpson was hacked again. Though he missed the back end of the one-and-one, restoring a three-point advantage proved crucial in holding off the Scarlet Knights.
“It was great that our guys stepped up there and knocked down some shots we needed to knock down,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It was mental stability on all levels. When teams are making runs, staying poised, and then keeping that mental stability we all talk about as a group.”
Added Simpson: “When I go to the free-throw line, I just try to stay locked in. At the end of the day, it’s just like Kobe (Bryant) said, ‘Next shot, next free throw, next play’ — whatever it is. When I go to the free-throw line I just try to think about Kawhi Leonard. When he goes to the free-throw line he just looks so focused and doesn’t let anything bother him. So I just try to have a Kawhi Leonard mentality.”
Simpson’s performance was far from spectacular, but it got the job done and it signified a return to normalcy for a Michigan team desperate for consistency.
Regardless of the stage and the circumstances, Simpson seems to always give them that.