Ann Arbor — For the second time this season, Northwestern deployed the same defensive game plan against Michigan junior guard Zavier Simpson.
This time around, the strategy backfired in a major way.
With Northwestern defenders daring Simpson to shoot from deep all game long, he responded by racking up a career-high 24 points and draining a career-high five 3-pointers in Sunday’s 80-60 thumping at Crisler Center.
“He's really worked at it and I think sometimes — that was the first time anybody played that way, so it shocked him a little bit. He wasn't as patient,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of the Wildcats’ decision to sag off Simpson in the first meeting on Dec. 4.
“He's such a competitor he saw that as a personal affront to his ability and this time he just let it come to him. He's had a couple good games since then. Against Illinois, he hit two big ones, as well. I think just familiarity in that territory and volume in practice breeds confidence.”
In the first encounter, Simpson got to the rim at will in the first half before Northwestern switched up its defensive approach and forced him to go from a driver to a shooter.
The tactic worked as Simpson missed five shots from 3-point range in the second half, including three consecutive attempts when it was a one-possession game, and was benched for the final six minutes in favor of sophomore guard Eli Brooks.
“I felt like they were going to do the strategy because it worked last time. What team wouldn't?” said Simpson, who finished 5-for-10 from beyond the arc. “I just had to keep doing the things I've been doing and just stay confident as I am.
“I mean, if that's their scouting report, that's their scouting report. Hopefully, I'll have nights like I did tonight.”
The night got off to a rather rough start. Simpson missed badly on his first two long-range attempts, with his second shot from the corner bouncing off the side of the backboard, and had his first make waved off due to a foul on the floor.
From then on, though, Simpson sank five of his next eight attempts. His first 3-pointer came at the 10:56 mark after Northwestern had cut the deficit to two — the closest the Wildcats would get the rest of the game — and his second helped ignite Michigan’s 21-6 run to close out the first half.
According to Northwestern coach Chris Collins, he was simply playing the percentages against Simpson, who entered the game as a career 28.4-percent shooter from beyond the arc.
“He's a heck of a player and it's no disrespect to him. He's a terrific player, a terrific leader. He makes them go,” Collins said. “I love watching him play and what he brings to that team on both ends. We decided in the game we wanted to try and clog up some of the driving lanes of (Ignas) Brazdeikis and (Charles) Matthews and (Jordan) Poole, and we were going to give late pressure to (Jon) Teske and Simpson from 3.
“Obviously, he has worked at it. Teams are going to try to do that and he makes them think twice if he's going to shoot the ball like that.”
Simpson said he’s not worried about how other teams will defend him moving forward and he wasn't trying to prove a point on Sunday.
But it certainly felt like he sent a message when he sauntered down the court after splashing his final two 3-pointers — the last coming via the step-back variety — within a 55-second span late in the second half when it was a 20-point game.
“This young man is really special as far as the type of grit and determination he has,” Beilein said. “If you put a challenge in front of Zavier Simpson, he's going to eventually win. Time will run out sometimes in life, but he will eventually win if there's a big challenge in front of him.
“He's going to beat the odds.”
Sunday’s game marked Michigan’s ninth straight sellout this season at Crisler Center.
“Sunday night, a 7:30 p.m. game, students just got back, 20 degrees out and I look around and almost every seat seemed to be occupied,” Beilein said. “Says a lot about our fan base here that on a Sunday night game where many people might have that one relaxing night at home they came to root for the Wolverines. It's really special.”
… Michigan hasn’t trailed for a single second in its last three games against Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern.
… The Wolverines are 31-1 over their past 32 games and have won 18 straight at home.
… Freshman center Colin Castleton wasn’t on the bench for Sunday’s game due to a stomach illness, according to a team spokesperson.