Ann Arbor — Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson made his return to Michigan’s starting lineup for the first time in 12 games.
But it might only be a temporary move.
Following Saturday’s 79-69 win over Illinois at Crisler Center, Michigan coach John Beilein said it isn’t a sign Simpson has locked down the No. 1 role and the swap with freshman Eli Brooks was based on the matchup.
“No, I don’t think it’s cemented, but I would love to get that cemented,” Beilein said. “I would love to do that, but I’m not going to go there yet. I just thought in this particular game, we needed a downhill, strong driver.
“Eli has been a little timid for whatever reasons lately, not using his athleticism, thinking way too much. That’s why Jaaron (Simmons) got a chance as well. We needed guys that would be aggressive against an aggressive defense.”
Illinois entered the game ranked sixth nationally in turnovers forced (18.9) and was allowing an average of 11 assists per game.
According to Beilein, his team didn’t need a point guard to set up plays — like Brooks does — because Illinois wasn’t going to allow it to happen and the Illini’s defense forces opponents to finish at the rim through contact.
“If we were playing some of the other teams in our league that let you make 10 passes and they’re not going to let you have the basket, it’s a better game (for Eli),” Beilein said. “Today was a better game for Jaaron and (Simpson) until Eli develops this downhill mentality that we need him to have.”
While Simpson had just five points and shot 1-for-5 from the field, he was effective at getting his teammates open looks with seven assists.
He also received a lion’s share of the playing time for the second straight game, finishing with 32 minutes compared to four minutes for Brooks, who missed both of his shot attempts to go along with an assist and a turnover.
The one concerning stat for Beilien, however, was that Simpson finished with a third of the team’s season-high 15 turnovers.
“He had five turnovers, which is very unlike him,” Beilein said. “At the same time, he did challenge them. I said today against these guys you got to be a bowling ball, man. You got to get low and you got to drive hard at the basket.
“It worked sometimes when he did a good job with that and then seeing the open man. I think we missed some really good 3s that he created that he maybe would’ve had 10 assists. … They won’t let you have assists. It’s a big step for him, but he’s not happy and I’m not happy about the five turnovers.”
Simpson started the first four games of the season before being replaced by Brooks following a two-point loss to LSU in the opening round of the Maui Invitational in November. Michigan is 4-1 with Simpson as the starter compared to 10-2 with Brooks.
Michigan coach talks about his team's performance in Saturday's 79-69 win. James Hawkins, Detroit News
Shaking the rust
Junior center Moritz Wagner turned in his best outing since coming back from a right foot and ankle injury with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting, seven rebounds, three blocks and two turnovers in 23 minutes.
He did most of his damage in the paint in the second half and knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner on his first shot of the game.
In his first two games back from injury, Wagner had combined for 11 points on 5-for-13 shooting, including 1-for-4 from 3-point range, with 10 rebounds and six turnovers.
“I understand shooters, I understand their mentality. When they miss and have a bad game, it’s like they had 10 bad games in a row,” Beilein said. “And Moe hadn’t been able to make 3s in games. He had been out and he didn’t have a feel.
“For him to make the first 3 and then just catch the ball and have no drama on those layups — he just turned and put it in. Earlier in the year he would turn that into something that isn’t healthy for his scoring. He just kept it as simple as he could today.”
For the third straight game, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman wore the same pink Jordan shoes he wore during last season’s Big Ten tournament title run.
Abdur-Rahkman said he planned to bring them out for the Big Ten season but started in the nonconference finale against Jacksonville.
“That was a warm-up for the Big Ten,” he said. “I had to make sure that it still had the same powers, I guess.
“I’m going to keep wearing them until they last. No point in giving it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Abdur-Rahkman has averaged 16 points, 4.7 rebounds and four assists in the three games he’s worn the pink shoes.
... Illinois coach Brad Underwood said part of his team's game prep included watching film from last year's NCAA Tournament matchup between Michigan and Oklahoma State, where he coached last season.
While it's a different group than Underwood faced last March, he said everything still starts at the point for Michigan.
"I'm not downplaying Zavier or any of their other guys, but when we played them in the Tournament, (Derrick) Walton was playing as well as any point guard in America," he said. "They made 16 3s last year in the game because we watched it. Fourteen of them were contested.
"It was a high-level game offensively but a lot of same characters (for Michigan) do the same things and we knew what was coming."
… After receiving a DNP at Iowa, Simmons finished with an assist and two turnovers in four minutes. He also split a pair of free throws to record his first point in four games.