CHICAGO — As the few Iowa fans dotted through the United Center rose to their feet, Zavier Simpson lowered himself into the first seat of the Michigan bench. The Hawkeyes trailed, 17-14, but with the Wolverines’ junior point guard resigned to the bench after a foul, they momentarily had life.
While Simpson sat, Michigan sputtered, failing to score a single point as tension built among a Wolverines’ fanbase still scarred by the memory of the seven-minute field goal drought that doomed it against Michigan State last weekend.
A piercing stare glued to Simpson’s face as he watched Michigan fail to find bottom could easily be misinterpreted as frustration. But when asked whether that was the case, Simpson denied any frustration, as did sophomore forward CJ Baird, freshman guard David DeJulius and just about anybody else you ask. When the question was posed to assistant coach DeAndre Haynes, he had to do a double take to make sure he heard it correctly.
“Oh, nah, nah, nah,” Haynes said. “Zavier, he’s a hell of a leader. When he’s not in the game, he’s leading the team.”
That leadership, though, manifests itself best when he’s taking the ball up the court, springing teammates into open looks before returning to the other end and making sure Michigan’s opponent can’t do the same.
And for the next 30 minutes, Simpson did exactly that, leading the Wolverines to a 74-53 win.
Michigan’s defensive focus coming into the game was to chase Iowa — the conference’s third-best 3-point shooting team — off the arc. At the center of that strategy was Jordan Bohannon, the Hawkeyes’ point guard who doubles as a microwave from deep, able to flip any game on its head with a flurry of threes if he gets hot.
On Friday night, Simpson never gave him that chance. Bohannon — who averages 2.3 made threes per game — attempted just two field goals. Both clanged iron.
When asked about his strategy against Iowa’s 3-point shooting, Michigan coach John Beilein began to dissect the Hawkeyes’ second-round win over Illinois on Thursday.
“If you watched their game last night —,” Beilein started. Then, he stopped himself to make a more important point. “And I can’t say enough about Zavier’s job on Bohannon.”
In the Michigan locker room, a lack of words wasn’t a problem when describing Simpson’s offense.
“He runs the team,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. “He’s our guy. If he gets it going, we’re all gonna play good, because he’s the one that creates plays for all of us.”
Baird, attempting to stifle laughter as Brandon Johns and Adrien Nunez tried to distract him, mirrored Brazdeikis’ praises.
“I think the best part about playing with him is he’s gonna find you if you’re open,” Baird began, before breaking character and savoring a moment of celebration. “He’s gonna find you if you’re open. When he’s on his game like that, he will find you.”
So too did junior center Jon Teske, the recipient of Simpson’s first assist off a pick-and-roll just 1:07 into the game.
“When we run in transition, he’s gonna find us,” Teske said. “When we’re open, he’s gonna find us. So it’s a lot of fun playing with a point guard like that.”
The common theme through all of his teammates’ praises is that Simpson’s contributions don’t impact himself as much as they do everybody else.
On Friday night, that was as evident as ever. By the time he made his way to the bench that first time, his assist tally stood at four. Just two minutes after re-entering, he made it five, finding sophomore guard Eli Brooks for a three from the right wing. When the final buzzer sounded on a dominant win, that number was 11.
In the first half alone, he contributed on 29 of Michigan’s 40 points. Iowa — as a team — entered the break with 27.
If Simpson’s second half wasn’t quite as impressive, it was only because it didn’t need to be. With 8:08 to play, he made his way back to that same spot on the Wolverines’ bench. This time, Michigan’s lead stood at 24 and he would only return for two more minutes out of obligation.
By the time he — along with Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole — returned to the bench for good, the Hawkeye fans who celebrated his first departure had long since gone off into the Chicago night. In their place came a standing ovation clad in maize-and-blue.
Presumably, it was meant for the Wolverines as a whole. But on this night, it may as well have been reserved for Simpson.