For the first 18 minutes of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s win over Purdue, Zavier Simpson didn’t even take a shot.
Coming off Sunday’s loss in which he shot the ball a career-high 18 times, it felt strange. After all, the senior point guard played all but one minute of Thursday’s first half. But Simpson took over the game after the break, pouring in 18 second-half points on 7-of-11 shooting to propel the Wolverines past the Boilermakers, 84-78, in double overtime.
When Michigan quickly fell behind in the second half, it was Simpson who spearheaded the comeback. By the time his teammates missed their 15th shot from beyond the arc, he’d seen enough.
He took matters into his own hands.
Simpson’s quick first step and elite vision allowed him to get to the rim seemingly at will, while his ability to collapse the defense created open looks for others. Throughout the second half, he blew past guards on the perimeter and finished crafty layups and improbable hook shots over bigger defenders. At times, he was the team’s lone source of offense.
And when the Wolverines needed a jolt at the beginning of the second overtime period, he knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing. Then senior center Jon Teske and freshman wing Franz Wagner followed suit, giving Michigan a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
For Purdue coach Matt Painter, it was all too familiar of a sight. Simpson has now scored in double figures in each of his four career starts against the Boilermakers. Painter has seen this side of Simpson for what must feel like an eternity, dating back to when he began recruiting him as a junior in high school.
“(Simpson) is just a winner,” Painter said. “He won in high school, he’s won here. That’s just who he is. Guys who are winners — guys like Mike Conley that came through the Big Ten — if they score four or six points, it’s no big deal. If they have to score 24, then so be it. That’s what winning is about. … He can will his team to victory.”
Painter wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Michigan coach Juwan Howard, too, was unsurprised by Simpson’s heroics.
“(Simpson) is one of the best point guards in college basketball,” Howard said. “One of the best leaders in college basketball. One of the toughest competitors in college basketball. A kid who’s been counted out so many times and has always figured out how to rise to the occasion. He trusts himself. We trust him. His teammates follow his lead and energy.”
In Simpson’s case, it boils down to more than just a box score. He’s one of the country’s fiercest competitors, and the first thing anybody around him notices is his will to win.
“He also knows each and every possession he has a coach that’s going to be leaning on him to provide leadership,” Howard said. “He embraces that. It’s not like he’s running away from that challenge. Yes, it’s big shoulders that he has to carry with all the accountability I’ve given him, all the trust I’ve given him.
“But, he’s earned all of it. We’re just happy that we have our Tom Brady.”
In Simpson, Howard sees himself. He says he’ll never forget the first time he called Simpson’s mother, Bobbie Carter. It was right after Howard accepted the job in May — a typical introduction between a new coach and current player’s parent. But to this day, one comment from the conversation stands out.
“The two of your birthdays are close to one another,” Howard recalls Carter saying.
Howard’s grandmother played a major role in his upbringing. One thing he remembers well is her affinity for astrology. With such close birthdays, Howard realized that he and Simpson both share the Aquarius horoscope.
“We both can be bull-headed,” Howard said. “I will always add stubborn. … We also are both tough-nose competitors. But the beauty of it is that we both trust one another, and I’ve earned his trust.”
Now, that trust can dictate the direction of the Wolverines’ season. And with Simpson at the head of the snake, Howard knows he can rest easy.
Howard often refers to Simpson as his Tom Brady. Painter likened him to Mike Conley. Throughout his tenure in Ann Arbor, he’s been compared to a pitbull.
But when Teske — Simpson’s co-captain — was asked to give a comparison, his answer was most telling.
“He’s Zavier Simpson.”