Piscataway, N.J. — Junior guard Zavier Simpson has a knack for making difficult things look easy.
One-handed wraparound bounce passes. Running hook shots over the outstretched arm of the tallest defender on the floor. Turning an opponent’s top offensive option into a nonfactor.
And for the third straight game, Simpson has made flirting with triple-double seem routine.
“Fourteen (points), seven (rebounds), seven (assists). That’s incredible,” Michigan coach John Beilein said reciting Simpson’s latest stat sheet-stuffing performance in Tuesday’s 77-65 win over Rutgers at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
“We've been really blessed, and it's probably why we've the success we've had is we've had really good point guards.”
Beilein, of course, has also had no shortage of success and guards running the show at every stop throughout his career. But the fact Beilein said Simpson is “starting to put his name” up there among the best he’s had — from his time in Ann Arbor all the way back to Erie Community College — speaks volumes.
Then again, so does Simpson’s recent streak of play. He recorded the sixth triple-double in program history with 11 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in last week’s 65-49 win over Ohio State. He followed that up with 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the loss at Iowa before posting the 14-7-7 stat line against Rutgers.
“Here, obviously, we've had great point guards,” Beilein said. “Between Darius (Morris) and Trey Burke and Derrick Walton, now he's stepping into those shoes, man, and he makes our coaching staff better."
It’s no secret Simpson makes everyone around him better with the way he’s able to put his fingerprints on everything, from disrupting an opponent’s offense at the point of attack to distributing the ball through any crack in a defense.
It didn’t take long to show it. Roughly three minutes into the first half, Simpson put the ball on a string, knifed his way toward the basket and drew two Rutgers defenders before rifling a left-handed bounce pass along the baseline to freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis in the corner.
Brazdeikis drilled the wide-open 3-pointer to cap the sequence and start a 24-6 run that buried Rutgers early. It was also the first of several downtown connections between the tandem, who picked apart the Scarlet Knights with pick-and-pop plays.
“He's amazing. He's the heart of our team,” Brazdeikis said. “When he can make plays for others and for himself, it opens up a lot of different things for us. The way he's been playing lately is just amazing and it's a lot of fun playing with on the court, for me personally.”
Rutgers guard Geo Baker would wholeheartedly disagree after having Simpson glued to his hip for 40 minutes.
Baker entered the matchup as the Scarlet Knights’ second-leading scorer at 13.2 points per game and top 3-point threat at 36.3 percent. But by the time Simpson was done chewing him up and spitting him out, Baker was left with one of his least productive outings and finished with eight points on 1-for-9 shooting (1-for-6 on 3s).
"His name was probably mentioned 100 times a practice last couple days,” Beilein said of Baker. “That inspires guys like Zavier.”
If Tuesday night reiterated anything, it’s that an inspired Simpson is a dangerous Simpson, even on the offensive end. He was effective and efficient, picking his spots and needing just seven shots to get 14 points for the No. 7 Wolverines (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten).
He swished his lone 3-point attempt, banked in another one of his demoralizing hook shots and didn’t crumble when Rutgers turned to the “Hack-a-Simpson” free-throw strategy in the closing minutes.
All in just another day of remarkable all-around play.
“He's playing at an elite-level right now,” junior center Jon Teske said. “He's really carrying us right now. He's the leader of the team so we all have got to follow him, and he sets the tone. In practice he comes ready to play every day. In games he sets the tone early on defensive side of the ball.
“He's willing to share the ball. He gets to the rim easy for those hooks. He rebounds well for a guard. He's playing at an elite level and it takes our team to the next level.”