Zavier Simpson bided his time, wrapping behind the basket before splitting two defenders with a no-look bounce pass. Just as the pass reached its apex, Jon Teske came streaking into the lane, collected the ball and emphatically slammed it home, giving Michigan a double-digit lead it would never relinquish.
That scene came late in the second half of the Wolverines’ 65-52 win over Maryland on Saturday, but it’s emblematic of a relationship that has come to define their offense over the past three months. Simpson — Michigan’s offensive conductor — leads all Big Ten point guards in assist-to-turnover rate, while Teske has flourished as its interior linchpin, averaging 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in conference play.
“A little bit under-recruited guys that came in with a little edge about them,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “A lot of people doubted whether they maybe could play at Michigan, either one of them. And I love the way they work together. They really have a great feel for each other.”
Early last year, the chemistry between the two would have appeared completely foreign. Teske played just 12 minutes a game, while Simpson was still finding his foothold in a three-headed point guard rotation.
This summer, that all changed. Simpson had already emerged as the exemplification of the Wolverines’ hard-nosed identity, but Teske’s offseason was filled with questions of whether he could replace the departed Moritz Wagner. In October, when Beilein expressed his confidence in Teske to replace Wagner’s 3-point production, it was met with a justified skepticism — Teske had attempted just two threes in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor and missed both.
But those within the program knew better.
“Aw man, they were doing that at pickup,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, referring to the unofficial scrimmages players hold over the summer to keep up their conditioning before official practices start in October.
Ask Teske himself and you’ll get an answer that goes even further back.
“I’d say (it developed) as soon as we got on campus,” Teske said after he and Simpson combined for 41 points in a win over Northwestern last month. “We came in as freshmen together, so we’ve been through a lot of ups and a lot of downs.”
No matter what answer you get, the consensus is a distinct lack of surprise.
And with the rest of Michigan’s starting five finding their share of offensive travails over the past few months, the pair’s consistency has been among the Wolverines’ defining strengths.
“The ‘5’ man and point guard have to have a really good connection on the court as well,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “Cause everything kinda runs through them. And being able to have a big man who controls everything how he does in the middle and being able to have (Simpson) lead how he does from the point guard position is huge.”
On the rare occasions that Teske and Simpson don’t shine, the results are obvious. When Maryland cut a 15-point deficit to three midway through the second half Saturday, Teske’s offense was a major culprit, as he made just 1-of-10 shots over the opening 35 minutes.
Then, Simpson, as he so often does, sprung his center open for consecutive baskets, part of a two-minute stretch in which Teske singlehandedly outscored the Terrapins, 7-2, extending Michigan’s lead from six to eleven and effectively icing the game.
It’s not just that Maryland game, either. The pair’s bond has shone through in all of the Wolverines’ most impressive wins — Simpson last failed to assist Teske in a game on Jan. 22 against Minnesota.
“It allows him to play — pop, roll, slip, do anything he can do,” Simpson said. “And it opens up not just for himself but also for others so that’s always good.”
Just like on the court, Teske’s answer is on the same page.
“He always knows where I am on the court and I know he’ll make the right decision and the right pass for me to go finish,” Teske said. “And he has the confidence in me to go finish around the rim or pick and pop and shoot the three.”
So when Teske streaks to the basket off a feed from his point guard, it can be easy to forget the questions that surrounded him just four months ago.
But then he’ll set a screen for Simpson at the top of the arc and, when his defender cheats off him, pop out beyond the 3-point line to nail a three. And each time, it will elicit some sort of surprise from the uninitiated, reminding Michigan fans of the doubt they used to carry.
Teske and his teammates, though? They knew this was coming all the way.