As Zavier Simpson sat quietly watching film, one pervading thought kept tugging away at his psyche.
He diligently watched game after game of Michigan falling to Michigan State over the course of his career, and had one nagging idea staring him right in the face: If the senior and unequivocal leader of this team hits a few more 3-pointers, the Wolverines flip the script.
Four straight losses over the last two seasons against a bitter rival become wins — or at least closer games — and Simpson is cemented as one of the greatest to ever throw on a maize and blue jersey, if only the ball falls through the hoop a few more times.
Simpson knew he had one more opportunity in his career to change the narrative around the rivalry, his 3-point shooting ability and his place in Michigan basketball history. And that chance sat behind the 3-point line.
So what did the senior do?
One of the worst statistical 3-point shooters on the Wolverines temporarily squashed all doubt and went 4-for-7 from beyond the arc to put the Spartans away, 77-68, and finish with a team-high 16 points.
For Simpson, it all boiled down to confidence.
Whether it came from playing on his home court or a desire to put recent controversy surrounding his one-game suspension to rest, Simpson was a different player on the floor than from games of the rivalry’s recent past. The last time the senior faced Michigan State on Jan. 5, he limped his way to a 1-for-6 performance from 3-point land. The confidence was clearly missing.
“I just wanted to come out and play confident,” Simpson said. “I watched a lot of film from last year’s games and the previous game where we played them earlier in the season, and I just wanted to come out and be confident in my shot. I’m confident in my shot, my coaches trust me, my teammates trust me. I wanted to just come in there and knock ‘em down. At the same time, don’t take it personal, try to make smart plays.”
Confidence aside, it is unimaginable the game plan revolved around Simpson rising up and drilling 3-pointers. Simply put, sets where Simpson shoots 3-pointers are typically not smart plays.
His career mark from beyond the arc is a measly 31 percent, and the Wolverines were significantly helped in that regard with the return of junior forward Isaiah Livers.
On paper, the plan can recently be derived as creating open looks for Livers and other more prolific shooters on the roster. On the floor, it played out as forcing the Spartans into making defensive errors and fighting for every 50-50 ball in order to generate more offensive looks for Michigan.
Simpson was clearly the benefactor of this change in fortune.
Ironically, the plays that never originated in coach Juwan Howard’s playbook ended up all but sealing the game for the Wolverines.
“There was nothing I was doing, it was all about the players,” Howard said. “Zavier made some tough shots, but he was open, and those are shots that he’s practiced. Those are shots that he comes in on off days and shoots, and it’s good to see that during the game. He was confident.
“I want him as well as his other teammates, when they’re open to don’t be afraid to take the open shot. If they miss a shot, my philosophy is if you get another open one, take the next one.”
What makes that philosophy work — whenever it actually does — is that it’s tough to defend. How are you going to game plan for a system that empowers all of its team’s shooters? All of them. Not just those who specialize in the craft.
Maybe that’s why when wrapping up his post game press conference, Spartans coach Tom Izzo queued the audience into his surprise over how the game played out:
“Some guys hit some shots that they weren’t supposed to.”
On Saturday, that was Simpson. And it all started in a Crisler Center film room, staring down the root of the problem.