SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Standing against a ten-foot mural of Moritz Wagner, John Beilein spoke to a herd of reporters with a pleasant tone. The Michigan men’s basketball coach had just earned the second National Semifinal victory of his career, largely due to Wagner’s historical showing of 24 points and 15 rebounds.
But when probed to articulate his starting point guard’s performance, the mood shifted.
“Zavier (Simpson) did not have a great day with the ball,” Beilein said. “A couple of (turnovers) were just careless.”
Though the Wolverines managed to escape Loyola, Saturday was one of Simpson’s worst performances of the season. He was uncharacteristically sloppy with four turnovers, and his shot was well off the mark, finishing scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting.
“You cannot play that way,” Beilein said. “Michigan basketball cannot win if we’re careless with the ball.”
Though it was indeed a blanket statement, Beilein’s comment carries serious weight as the Wolverines get set for Monday’s title matchup. Against Villanova — the country’s most efficient offensive team — Michigan can’t afford as many miscues from Simpson.
Yet, that’s not even the sophomore’s most prominent obligation. Simpson will be tasked with defending Jalen Brunson, the AP Player of the Year who averages 19.2 points per game on 53-percent shooting.
Simpson, of course, is known as a shutdown defender. He has forced elite point guards like Houston’s Rob Gray, Penn State’s Tony Carr and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston to substandard nights. A week ago, Simpson made T.J. Starks — Texas A&M’s self-described “unstoppable” point guard — look foolish.
But Brunson is a different animal. He can ball-handle defenders into submission. He can shoot, he can pass. He can even post up.
“You got two pitbulls playing against each other, that’s what it’s going to be,” said assistant coach DeAndre Hayes. “He’s gonna do some things we haven’t seen out of a guard.”
But Simpson has two things working in his favor.
For one, Saturday’s performance is already behind him. Players make statements about amnesia and how they’re not thinking about this or that. But when the no-nonsense Simpson says it, it feels more truthful, and that’s evident to those around him.
“One thing about X is that he’s strong-minded — he doesn’t dwell on the past, he always moves forward,” Haynes said. “When I played in college, my coaches they made me write on my shoe, ‘Short-term memory.’ I tell all my guards that now.”
When it comes to understanding his opponent, however, Simpson’s memory is indelible. On Sunday, he and the Wolverines will go through a rigorous preparation routine — one that has endured throughout Beilein’s tournament runs.
First, Simpson will read the scouting report on Brunson, which is usually prepared on a white board in the team locker room. Then he’ll watch film, with each clip corresponding to a certain aspect of the Wildcats.
It’s all taken to practice, where it’s the scout team’s responsibility to mimic Brunson’s game.
That responsibility falls on freshman Luke Wilson, Michigan’s walk-on point guard. His job won’t be easy. Both are left-handed, but Brunson posts up like a big man. Wilson’s post moves … well, let his teammates assess them.
“(Luke) can’t post up,” barked Eli Brooks in the Wolverines’ locker room.
“I’ll make him turn red today,” Simpson added.
“You’re all talk, dude,” Wilson responded.
“Alright, say that for 40 minutes.”
The back-and-forth, right in front of a media scrum, is emblematic of the everlasting intensity Simpson carries.
A month ago, he and Wilson nearly fought in practice. In one drill, Simpson was guarding Wilson, denying consistently and pushing the ball out of bounds. When Wilson finally caught the ball, Simpson got in his face — so close that Wilson pushed him over.
“Everyone was like ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” recalled freshman guard C.J. Baird.
That’s just the type of competitor Simpson is. It doesn’t matter if he’s facing a walk-on or star. He’s not in it to lose.
On Monday, in the biggest game of the year against the country’s best player, that’s what Simpson will attempt to prove once again.
“Definitely a matchup that I’m looking forward to. Who wouldn’t?” Simpson said. “In order to be the best, you have to compete with the best.”