Isaiah Livers looked across the locker room at Luke Yaklich.
The Michigan men’s basketball team was less than 30 minutes removed from its first round win over Montana, but Livers was curious about the Wolverines’ next opponent, Houston.
“They’ve got a good guard, right? How many’d he have tonight?”
“39,” the assistant coach responded.
“Wow. Well, we’ve got something for ‘em.” Livers nodded his head to the corner of the room, where sophomore guard Zavier Simpson was fielding questions from reporters.
“Oh, yeah,” Yaklich said. “Sic’ ‘em.”
They were, of course, talking about Houston guard Rob Gray, who scored 39 of his team’s 67 points in its first round victory over San Diego State, including the game-winning acrobatic layup with 1.3 seconds remaining.
A day later, the burgeoning superstar was the topic du jour for coaches, reporters and players. How would he be stopped? Would Michigan alter it’s defensive philosophy to contain the guard? Would Zavier Simpson, known for his maniacal defensive intensity, eliminate yet another star guard?
The answers were unsurprisingly vague.
Gray himself said he hadn’t begun watching tape on Simpson. Michigan coach John Beilein compared Gray to Purdue guard Carsen Edwards, but was sure to emphasize how impressed he was with the rest of the Cougars.
Simpson’s tone remained measured, hushed, about how he and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were going to approach one of the most challenging matchups of the season.
“Of course it does,” Simpson said on whether he saw the matchup provides a challenge. “I mean, he scored 40 points just about yesterday. So, I mean, it’s a good challenge for me to face. But I just have to know, just that, I can’t make this more of a one-and-one matchup. It’s still a team game.
But Livers wasn’t buying it. He’s seen the way Simpson approached matchups with guys like, Edwards, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday and countless others.
When asked how the locker room felt about all of the attention aimed at Gray, Livers responded, “It pisses that guy off (pointing to Simpson) and that guy (pointing to Abdur-Rahkman). They take that to heart.”
But while Gray and Simpson will garner much of the storyline — and rightfully so — Michigan coach John Beilein was careful not to disregard the other challenges the Cougars would present, like guard Corey Davis Jr.
“This is not about just Rob Gray,” Beilein said. “He’s really good. The other guys didn’t have great games yesterday. You look at their stats. Davis has over 100 threes made. I think Duncan (Robinson)’s best year might have had 79.”
Davis has made 102, to be exact, tied for 20th in the country. If Davis is the afterthought in fans’ minds, then he’s one dangerous afterthought. And while he struggled in the opener against San Diego State, going 2-for-10 with just nine points, an overemphasis on Gray would lend openings for Davis.
But luckily for Michigan, playing defense on short preparation is a two-sided coin. Houston has to match up with junior forward Moritz Wagner and the Wolverines’ shooters, too.
It’s in this tournament setting that Beilein’s teams usually thrive. The complications of his offense have always made his teams a tough out in the Tournament.
In Yaklich’s eyes, that should be the case again Saturday. And his familiarity with the situation is two-fold. He’s the guy that has to gameplan and gear a defense on short rest, and he’s also the guy that is still trying to figure out Beilein’s offense every day in practice for himself.
“For him, it’s just, there’s a read and an adjustment for everything that he does,” Yaklich said. “I heard one time a coach says, ‘If you really teach your players good offense, no matter what the defense does, they’re wrong.’ And it made a lot of sense to me. Coach’s system is the total microcosm of that statement in that… there’s an adjustment for whatever the defense does. The moving parts all put together make that hard to guard. I watch it everyday, and I struggle with it everyday trying to get our guys to guard our own stuff.”
If Yaklich still has trouble figuring it out then Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson will surely have his own issues.
But maybe that’s the point. When it comes to Tournament time, a team can only be so prepared, especially for the second game in three days. Gray probably wasn’t lying when he said he hadn’t started watching tape on Simpson, and Simpson’s seeming disinterest in the hype around his matchup with Gray could be a result of just how many guards Simpson has seen and may see by season’s end.
But those same matchups are the reason why the hype is so enormous. Houston feels confident because Gray and the other guards can put up points. The Wolverines feel confident because their Simpson and their defense can stop just about anybody.
Livers said it: “We’ve got something for ‘em.”
The feeling is surely mutual.