Zavier Simpson, Michigan don't back down, show 'real toughness'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Zavier Simpson is congratulated by the Michigan bench as he exits the game with a triple-double.

Ann Arbor — Ohio State didn’t want to wait till tip-off to try and send a message.

When Michigan junior guard Zavier Simpson ran out the tunnel for warm-ups, a Buckeye player bumped his shoulder as he took the court at Crisler Center.

The pregame bully tactic might’ve worked against John Beilein’s previous teams. But this one? No chance.

"Oh yeah, it was little chippy,” Simpson said. “You know everybody is tough on the court until things really get deep. That's when you know who's really tough.

“It's not about those type of plays. It's about who's going to take the charge, who's going to grab that rebound, who's going to dive on the floor, who’s going to make sure the team's mindset is great and stable. That's real toughness."

The No. 5 Wolverines showed all that and more by thriving in Tuesday’s 65-49 rivalry clash that featured four technical fouls, a 10-player skirmish and Michigan’s smallest player not backing down from Ohio State’s largest.

It’s a significant shift from just two seasons ago, when the Wolverines’ toughness and grit was called into question. Before then, Beilein’s finesse-based teams struggled to hold their own against foes who wanted to knock them down and beat them up.

But this Michigan squad embraces the physical play and feeds off it. And nowadays, it often results in the opposing coach saying the same things Beilein and the Wolverines used to in the past.

“I think that was an accumulation of probably some frustration, for a variety of reasons,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said of the second-half fracas. “I thought the game was really physical for the bulk of the game and when it's that physical, those things tend to happen.”

Holtmann noted in a rough and rowdy contest where the teams combined for only 18 free throws  the Buckeyes averaged 21 free-throw attempts alone entering the matchup  there was no call when one of his players was “plowed” on the last play of the first half.

“If it's that kind of a game and it's that physical then that's how you've got to play,” he said. “Ultimately if that's the way the game is going to be called then we have to raise our physicality.”

So far, not many teams have been able to match Michigan (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) in that department this season, and Tuesday was the latest example.

When Ohio State’s Andre Wesson drove to the rim, sophomore guard Jordan Poole stood his ground and took a charge despite giving up 25 pounds.

Then when Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State’s 6-foot-9, 270-pound big man, appeared to have a clear path for a dunk, Poole knocked him down to the court after swatting his shot from behind.

“When you’ve been in the weight room and you've been here for two or three years, you know what the expectation is,” Beilein said. “And you can’t expect freshmen to do it as well and do it well without fouling. And that was huge — that wouldn’t have been Jon (Teske) two years ago. But Iggy (Brazdeikis) stepped right into that role right now. Charles (Matthews) can play real physical as well and, of course, Zavier is.”

Simpson was at the center of it all against his home-state team  thanks to his triple-double of 11 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds and his fearless attitude.

Shortly after he chased down Wesson on a fast break and blocked him from behind with 9:15 to play, Wesson flattened Simpson and knocked him down on a hard screen. Simpson took exception, bounced back up and looked to the ref for an explanation for the no call before he started barking at Wesson.

“What happens on the court, stays on the court,” Simpson said. “We're going to keep (what was said) on the court.”

Michigan guard Jordan Poole reacts coming off the court at a timeout after multiple technical fouls are called on  both teams in the second half.

Tempers quickly flared between the rivals and it didn’t take long for all 10 players on the court to get involved. Poole and Wesson exchanged some choice words before the mild-mannered Teske got right in the middle of it and shoved Wesson away with one hand, a reaction that would've seemed unfathomable a season ago.

“I think we did that to Jon,” said Poole, who received a tech along with Teske. “Earlier in the year we saw that Jon was changing. He was showing more emotion, hitting 3s and shooting arrows. Now being able to stand in there like, 'You’re not going to push me or push my teammates around,' and pushing big guys back shows how he’s advanced.”

The shouting and shoving match didn’t die down until the coaching staffs rushed onto the floor, with Beilein telling his players to “let them do the talking, we’re going to let our actions speak for us.”

For the most part, that’s what the Wolverines have done all season.

When Villanova tried to intimidate and punk Michigan during a pregame spat in November, the Wolverines didn’t shy away. When a few moments got testy at Illinois earlier this month, Michigan didn’t back down.

And when things get chippy in a game, the Wolverines don't seem to mind. In fact, it only seems to sharpen the edge and add to the motivation Michigan plays with. 

“Guys are tough with their mouth, but they're not tough with their play,” Simpson said. “Guys like to talk, which I appreciate. I mean, we feed off that. That gets us going. When they do that, we're only hungry for more. We're hungry for the next stop, make the next open pass and just try to win. That's what we're hungry for.”

Maybe other teams will start to get the message.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins