Bob Wojnowski, James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau review the college basketball season at midseason for No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 Michigan State. The Detroit News
Champaign, Ill. — When it comes to the top point guards in the Big Ten, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston are among the first names to pop up.
When it comes to the top overall player in the conference, one could make a case for Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr., Indiana’s Romeo Langford, Edwards and Winston, among others.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood would put one player at the top of both categories: Michigan's Zavier Simpson.
“Zavier Simpson, in my opinion, is the MVP of the league to this point just simply because if you took him away from their team, you saw what happened when they took him out,” Underwood said following Michigan’s 79-69 win Thursday at State Farm Center.
That’s saying something, especially coming from Underwood, who scouted and game planned for Simpson when he was a freshman, a sophomore and, now, a junior.
Underwood’s opinion of Simpson wasn’t necessarily glowing the first time they crossed paths in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. At that time, Underwood was the coach at Oklahoma State and Simpson served as then-senior guard Derrick Walton Jr.’s backup.
“He couldn't play in the NCAA Tournament game,” Underwood said of Simpson. “We picked him at half court, he couldn't play. And he probably shouldn't have played, to be quite honest, the way Walton was playing.”
Fast forward two years and Underwood has completely changed his tune about Simpson, who has gone from a player Michigan didn’t need to one it can’t go without.
During a brief first-half stretch where sophomore guard Eli Brooks replaced Simpson at the point, Brooks committed a foul and turned the ball over as Illinois used a spurt to pull within 20-17.
That’s when Simpson checked back in after sitting for 2 minutes, 14 seconds. He never went to the bench again and the Illini never got any closer than three the rest of the way.
And after Michigan’s 11 first-half turnovers — the Wolverines averaged roughly nine entering the game — helped Illinois hang around, they dried up in the second half due to a key halftime adjustment.
“They didn't take the ball out of Zavier's hands. Everything became a real high ball screen,” Underwood said. “They started back-cutting, which changed a simple (defensive) rotation, and basically the ball never got out of Zavier's hands. If they did, they threw it to (Jon) Teske and threw it right back to him. He controlled things where in the first half we were a little more effective because they actually tried to run some of their stuff.”
But in the second half, Simpson, who finished with a team-high 16 points, eight assists and two turnovers, never cracked under Illinois’ pressure.
When he had two fast-break layup attempts swatted off the backboard, that didn’t dissuade him the third time when he finished at the rim with two Illini players soaring around him.
When an Illinois assistant shouted from bench that Simpson can't go to his left, he still continually went to his right, knifed through the Illini’s aggressive defense and found the open man — from a wraparound pass behind a defender to Teske or a bounce pass through traffic to a cutting Charles Matthews.
And when Illinois cut the deficit under 10 three times over the final 11:50, Simpson had a hand in pushing it back to double digits, most notably with a silencing 3-pointer with 5:10 left to play.
“We've got to continue to find ways to get the ball in his hands because it's really secure when it's in there,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I don't know if he's ever going to be a Nik Stauskas or a Duncan Robinson out there from 3, but he's going to make enough that people are going to have to play him honest. The way he's seeing Jon, the way he's seeing everybody else — we didn't shoot well, and he found Jordan (Poole) a couple times wide open and Jordan didn't get it.
“Any other time that they got close, we look at Zavier and we've got as good a point guard as there is in the country running our team.”
It’s a sentiment Underwood might not have agreed with a couple seasons ago. But after Thursday? He might have a hard time disagreeing.
“I think that's a testament to John's program. Look at Simpson and his growth,” Underwood said. “It's an attribute to their assistant coaches, their staff in what they do. We're striving for that every single day with our guys.
“Zavier, like I said, I think he's the MVP right now. You take him away from that team, they're not No. 2 in the country.”
Northwestern at Michigan
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 2 Michigan 16-0, 5-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 10-6, 1-4
Outlook: Michigan can set the program record for best start to the season with a victory…The Wolverines escaped with a 62-60 win over the Wildcats in the first meeting this season on Dec. 4…Michigan has won seven straight meetings between the teams at home, with Northwestern’s last win in Ann Arbor coming in 2010.