Within the confines of the Omni Los Angeles Hotel, Luke Wilson and Jaaron Simmons stood behind gold-painted elevator doors. The pair had a walk-through to catch, as the Michigan men’s basketball team prepared for a Sweet Sixteen matchup against Texas A&M.
“Luke, how does it feel to be here in your first NCAA Tournament?” Simmons asked.
“It’s pretty cool, man,” Wilson responded.
“Yeah. It’s my first, too.”
The difference? Wilson is a freshman walk-on, Simmons is a fifth-year senior.
Simmons has waited forever to stand in that elevator. In the past three years at Ohio, he couldn’t even will himself to watch March Madness. It irked too much that his teams didn’t qualify.
“It was normally like right after the conference tournament,” Simmons said Friday, “and you’re still mad that you wasn’t playing.”
So ten months ago, Simmons decided to leave Ohio for one reason: to play in the NCAA Tournament. It was a sacrifice in dominance and jurisdiction. He was the MAC’s Preseason Player of the Year and averaged nearly 16 points and seven assists per game last season.
As such, Simmons was expected to be the Wolverines’ starting point guard this season. And even as sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks alternated in the role while he learned the offense, it felt like Simmons would make a charge some point this year.
It never happened. He hasn’t started a game at Michigan. Simmons was outright benched eight times.
But through those lows, Simmons has been the consummate leader. Back in November, even while he was battling with Simpson and Brooks, his teammates raved about his positivity and encouragement. And when it became clear that Simmons lost the battle for good, his approach never changed.
“He’s handled it in an unbelievable way,” Wilson said. “I can’t see many people handling it the way he has, (with) great poise, great respect for everyone. He’s always been encouraging and never been negative, which is really impressive.”
Added freshman forward Isaiah Livers: “When I get down, I always think about how Jaaron’s handling his situation. This is his last year, and he’s not doing — in his mind — what he thought he’d be doing right now. But it’s incredible. I really hope to have a mature mind such as his.”
Part of that is a side of Simmons absent from the public: his sense of humor. Simmons prefers to share the nuts and bolts in front of the media. He’ll crack a smile occasionally, but answering questions seems like more of a chore than anything from him.
With his teammates, however — away from the hordes of reporters and blinding camera lights — Simmons is as entertaining and genuine as can be.
“He’s hilarious,” Livers said. “When I first got here this summer, I needed a ride to open gym. So I texted him, ‘I need a ride to open gym.’ And I learned a lot about him — that 15-minute ride to the open gym — than probably two months. Because when we’re around a lot of people, Jaaron doesn’t talk a lot.”
Through all the jokes in the lean days of benchings, it has all culminated in Simmons’ chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. In the opening round against Montana, he came ready to play, going 3-of-3 in 14 minutes.
Simmons, though, said it felt like business as usual — that’s what surprised them most about his March experience. Once his pink Jordans hit the March Madness hardwood, it was just another game.
Accordingly, he hasn’t digested the entire experience yet. But through the demands and stress of the Tournament, Simmons can still make a definitive claim.
“I feel like after it’s all over — after a National Championship, hopefully — it’ll all sink in like, ‘We did something real special this year,’ ” Simmons said. “Just being able to come and make it to the Tournament, it’s great.
“I had the opportunity to play in the Elite Eight, so it was all worth the move.”
Now, after Saturday’s victory over Florida State, Simmons will have his opportunity to play in the Final Four. For everything he’s been through with the Wolverines, it’s the consummate payoff.
“It’s great, it’s a dream come true,” Simmons said Saturday. “I knew this team could do some special thing. We bought in, stuck together through all of the adversity.
“We here. Dream come true.”