Juwan Howard hasn’t shied away from calling Zavier Simpson his quarterback.
In his first season as the Michigan men’s basketball coach, Howard inherited a proven senior point guard. Simpson, one of the nation’s craftiest passers and elite perimeter defenders, has been the Wolverines’ backbone since he became the team’s starting point guard halfway through his sophomore season.
Even after a coaching change forced him into a new system, Simpson has remained productive. Simpson leads the Big Ten in assists with 8.9 per game, and if you ask anyone around the program about his work ethic, they’ll tell you that above all, he wants to win. That pairing of production and attitude makes it easy to see why Howard likens him to Tom Brady.
But over the last month, Michigan has seen a different version of the Zavier Simpson that piloted the team’s 7-0 start this season. Through the first month of the schedule, opposing defenses gave Simpson the opportunity to play to his strengths. And as one of the country’s best pick-and-roll ball handlers, he put together a highlight film of assists.
Whether it was throwing alley-oops to senior center Jon Teske or creating improbable angles to find shooters along the perimeter, Simpson’s ability to create offense out of the pick-and-roll fueled a high-octane offense.
Until it didn’t.
In the Wolverines’ loss to Louisville on Dec. 3, Cardinals’ coach Chris Mack cracked the code. Louisville hedged hard on screens, making it difficult for Simpson to invent the same passing angles that made Michigan’s offense so successful in wins over then-No. 6 North Carolina and now-No. 1 Gonzaga at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
“It starts with Zavier,” Mack said after the game. “The deeper he gets in the lane, the more it puts your off-ball defenders in a bind. How much do I help in? In the Bahamas, he’d just get in the lane and spray it out, and (junior forward Isaiah) Livers and (junior guard Eli) Brooks, they couldn’t miss. And so all we talked about was keeping him out of the lane, and then hard closeouts.”
When the Cardinals didn’t hedge hard, they played Simpson for the drive. They sagged off. They dared Howard’s Tom Brady to shoot.
And surely enough, as Mack predicted, the Wolverines are at their worst when their quarterback becomes their shooter.
In Michigan’s 10 wins, Simpson averages 7.6 attempts from the field at an efficient 59-percent clip, which would be the third-best overall mark in the conference. But in the Wolverines’ four losses, he averages 13.5 shots. Increased volume, though, has brought the opposite of increased effectiveness, as Simpson shoots just 31 percent from the field in losses.
Simpson’s assist numbers, too, trend in opposite directions based on gameflow. He dishes out an average of 9.4 assists in wins, but just 7.5 in losses.
Together, Simpson’s shooting and assist splits often tell the story of Michigan’s fate. When the Wolverines have fallen behind, Simpson has grown more aggressive. In an effort to will his team back into games, he drives to the rim at a higher rate and takes more contested shots.
The most recent example came on Sunday in East Lansing, where Simpson struggled to a 6-for-18 shooting performance, including a 1-of-6 mark from deep. And it’s no coincidence that Michigan was staring at an 18-point loss by the end of the afternoon.
With Livers and his 13.6 points per game now sidelined indefinitely, the Wolverines are at a crossroads. Simpson will always be at the offense’s helm, but the team’s best output comes when he’s orchestrating the scoring, not creating it. While he may be the team’s third-leading scorer, making up for Livers’ lost production needs to fall on Brooks, freshman wing Franz Wagner and sophomore guard David DeJulius.
If Michigan is to contend for a Big Ten title, Simpson has to play his brand of basketball. And with three of the team’s next four games coming against teams either nationally-ranked or receiving poll votes, there will be times when he’s tempted to stray from exactly that.
But for the Wolverines’ offense to weather Livers’ absence, their quarterback has to facilitate it — not produce it.
Dash can be reached on Twitter @DanielDash_ or by email at email@example.com.