UM’s Zavier Simpson delivers latest defensive gem
Los Angeles — Michigan sophomore guard Zavier Simpson heard the chatter and quickly silenced it.
On Wednesday, Texas A&M freshman guard T.J. Starks told reporters he thought he was “unstoppable” and “unguardable” heading into Thursday’s Sweet 16 showdown at Staples Center.
“I mean he’s supposed to say that. He’s a basketball player,” Simpson said. “Should he say another person can guard him? He’s supposed to be confident like that.”
Starks might not be any more after he learned the hard way about Simpson’s defensive prowess and was rendered a nonfactor in Michigan’s 99-72 shellacking of Texas A&M.
Simpson recorded five steals in the first half — Starks, coincidentally, had five first-half turnovers — and finished with a career-high six swipes to spearhead another stalwart effort. His previous high was four against UCLA on Dec. 9.
Overall, the Wolverines forced 14 turnovers, 12 coming on steals, that led to 20 points.
Starks finished with five points on 2-for-11 shooting, five turnovers and one assist in 25 minutes. He was held scoreless and played only eight minutes in the second half.
“We kind of live and die with how he’s playing,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said of Starks. “As a freshman, they did a really good job of taking him away off the ball screen and making him make tough plays, and that put us in a tough position again being down so many going into the second half.”
It was just the latest stifling effort for Simpson in the postseason. Following his string of shutdown outings in the Big Ten tournament, Simpson negated Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie to five points on 2-for-8 shooting in the second half after sitting most of the first half due to foul trouble.
Then against Houston, Simpson drew the main assignment against star guard Rob Gray, who was coming off a career performance. Simpson pestered Gray with his physicality and made him work for his game-high 23 points, a mark he needed 22 shot attempts to reach.
Simpson continued his defensive swarm tour and turned it up another notch against Starks, who entered the game dripping in confidence and averaging 19.7 points and 5.7 assists in three postseason contests.
“He took a personal challenge there that they had a really talented freshman on that team that is going to run the team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.
“We take a lot of pride in our individual defense, not just our team defense. He takes it especially (personal), so he was really excited to have this opportunity to play against a guard who had played well all year long for Texas A&M.”
The Wolverines were sizzling from 3-point range from the start and opened 7-for-10 over the first 12 minutes, with each make coming from a different player.
By the time the game ended, Michigan finished 14-for-24 on 3-pointers with a program-record eight Wolverines knocking down a deep ball in a NCAA Tournament game.
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the long-range attack with four 3-pointers, while junior center Moritz Wagner connected on all three of his attempts and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson buried a pair.
Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews, freshman guard Jordan Poole, sophomore guard Ibi Watson, walk-on freshman forward C.J. Baird and Simpson each made one.
The 14 made 3-pointers tied for the second most by Michigan in the NCAA Tournament and topped the team’s total over its first two tournament games (five vs. Montana, eight vs. Houston).
“We didn’t shoot too well in Wichita, but we knew that we were confident coming into the game that we could get our shots off,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We just picked and chose our shots, and we took them.”
Michigan finished with 21 assists, which marked the fifth time this season the Wolverines recorded at least 20 in a game and first time since Dec. 21.
… Michigan’s 99 points is the sixth-highest total in the program’s NCAA Tournament history and the most since scoring 102 against East Tennessee State on March 22, 1992.
… Michigan’s 61.9 percent shooting is its second-best in program history in the tournament. The top mark is 64.7 percent set against Florida on March 19, 1988.
Michigan vs. Florida State
Tip-off: 8:49 p.m. Saturday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 31-7; No. 9 seed Florida State 23-11
Up next: Winner advances to the Final Four to face the Loyola Chicago-Kansas State winner.