John Beilein said he wished Zavier Simpson would “look at the basket” more after Michigan’s season opener on Saturday.
It was a plea for the sophomore guard to be more aggressive offensively — to make plays and take his shots when they’re there.
Monday, against Central Michigan, Simpson heeded his coach’s advice.
In a game where the Wolverines couldn’t find their offensive touch — especially from 3-point range, where they shot 29 percent — the Chippewas were able to hang around. With just 3:32 left in the game, a shot from forward David DiLeo pulled Central Michigan within seven points. Michigan needed a spark from somewhere to push it over the edge.
The Chippewas entered a hawkish, full-court press — different from the more relaxed full-court defense they had employed all game. The Wolverines didn’t panic, though, breaking the press with ease. Simpson ended up with the ball in the frontcourt. He lobbed it over the outstretched hands of the last Central Michigan defender and gently toward the hoop where junior forward Moritz Wagner slammed it home.
Moments later, after the Chippewas answered with a 3-pointer, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson drove into the lane and kicked the ball out to a wide-open Simpson at the top of the key. And on a day when scorers like Robinson and Wagner struggled to find their stroke, Simpson didn’t.
The shot was a high point of a 5-for-7 shooting performance that netted him 13 points. While Beilein believes there’s more work to be done, he saw the performance as an sign of improvement for his point guard.
“That’s what he has to do. He can’t be a swinging gate out top,” Beilein said. “We’ve got to get closer. If you watch him and Jaaron (Simmons), sometimes they’re standing on the block ‘M’ reversing the ball (and) we’re playing four on five. That’s a spatial thing we’ve just got to keep working on. … That’s what he has to do.”
In addition to his improved shooting, Simpson continued to do the things that put him in the starting lineup in the first place.
Defensively, he added two steals to his stat sheet, and on a number of different occasions, he forced bad shots or jump balls.
And after having only one turnover against North Florida, Simpson had none against the Chippewas. While his assist numbers did drop from nine to three in the two games, the sophomore noted that taking care of the ball is a main focus for him. It’s something he credits assistant coach Deandre Haynes for instilling in him.
“It’s definitely a more concerted effort to take care of the ball,” Simpson said. “It’s important as a team. We try to limit ourselves to no more than 10 turnovers a game. With assistant coach — coach Deandre — he’s on me about turnovers, whether that’s in practice or the game.
“… For a starting point guard, it’s just important that I take care of the ball.”
Beilein has said recently that he’s eventually hoping to cut the three-man rotation at point guard to two. It was already a fairly safe bet that Simpson would stay in that rotation. It’s less of a sure thing, though, whether he’ll maintain his starting role once fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons gets acclimated.
But if Simpson can continue to improve his aggressiveness offensively, while maintaining his defensive and ball-protecting capabilities, he’ll make it hard for Beilein to bench him.