Zavier Simpson, dominant defense give Michigan a Final Four shot

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Zavier Simpson

Michigan coach John Beilein wanted to give his team a reminder of the position they’re in.

One day after losing to rival Michigan State for the third time in three weeks — twice with a Big Ten regular-season and tournament title on the line — Beilein showed the Wolverines the NIT bracket.

“I thought about all the teams that wished they were here (in the NCAA Tournament),” Beilein said Monday on his radio show. “North Carolina State had a tremendous season and they're in the NIT. Just look at all these teams that are dying to be there. That's 96 teams or 100 teams that are in postseason play, and you don't show them the other 260 that were done two weeks ago.

“They have to understand it. But that's the good thing that you go from our 2009 team where we tore the roof off of Crisler because we got in to now it's such an expectation because there's only been (two times) since then we didn't make it. It's good, but we can't have a cavalier attitude about it.”

Beilein noted there were “a lot of reasons” the Wolverines couldn’t beat the Spartans, but his team can’t get stuck on what they couldn’t accomplish.

Instead, they need to turn the page and embrace what they have accomplished: a 28-6 record, ranked No. 8 in the country, ranked a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ranked in the top 10 for 18 straight weeks.

“I kept asking them when we had 20 wins, 'We got 20? We got 23? We got 25? We got 28?’ Are you kidding me?” Beilein said. “It's really been a tremendous year for us. To be at six losses, it's a great year.

“We've got to relish what we have, what's happening here and what the future looks like.”

With that in mind, here are three reasons Michigan could make it back to the Final Four for the second straight season.

‘Sensational’ Simpson

Guard play goes a long way come tournament time and Zavier Simpson elevated his game to an elite level this past weekend in Chicago.

Simpson put on a couple of dominant two-way performances on back-to-back days in the Big Ten tournament the by shutting down Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon (zero points, 0-for-2 shooting) and Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer (five points, 2-for-8 shooting). He also made things difficult for Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, who needed 13 shots to reach 14 points.

On the other end, Simpson averaged 10.3 points and 10 assists in 31 minutes while shooting 61.9 percent (13-for-21) from the field and 55.6 percent (5-for-9) from 3-point range over the three games. He also posted a 30-2 assist-turnover ratio and a plus-49 plus-minus rating.

“He was doing it at both ends the whole time,” Beilein said. “It is as good as any point guard has performed. He was absolutely sensational.

“I've never seen a kid with a 30-2 ratio like that, shoot well from 3. He's going to lead us into this tournament and it's going to be really important.”

In addition to Simpson’s recent torrid stretch, his postseason experience will be pivotal for the Wolverines, who will have several younger guys playing big roles in the Big Dance for the first time.

Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers started a year ago, but played more than 15 minutes in only four of Michigan’s 10 games in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Similarly, junior center Jon Teske and sophomore guard Jordan Poole averaged 12.3 and 11.7 minutes, respectively, as backups, while sophomore guard Eli Brooks played sparingly.

Simpson is only one of two players, along with redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews, who averaged 30-plus minutes during last season’s run to the national title game and understands what it takes to succeed at this time of the year, something most teams’ leaders can’t say.

Dominant ‘D’

Beilein will enter the NCAA Tournament with one of the best defenses in the nation — and the best he’s had in his 12 years at Michigan.

The Wolverines are allowing a 0.861 points per possession and 58.6 points per game, marks that both rank second in the country.

They rank fifth nationally in 3-point field-goal defense at 28.9 percent and have surrendered the second-fewest made 3-pointers (160) and third-fewest 3-point attempts (554).

They rank 20th in field-goal percentage defense at 39.9 percent and seventh in effective field-goal percentage defense at 44.1 percent, which adjusts field-goal percentage to account for 3-pointers counting for three points.

They excel at defending without fouling (14.1 fouls per game, fifth fewest) and rarely send teams to the free-throw line (474 attempts, 13th fewest).

On top of all of that, Michigan has stifled numerous NCAA Tournament teams and proven it can smother some of the best offenses this season, including four who rank in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency in Purdue (fifth), North Carolina (seventh), Iowa (15th) and Villanova (16th).

The Wolverines held Norfolk State (44 points), Villanova (46 points), Minnesota (49 points) and Maryland (52 points) to season lows in scoring. They’ve also limited Ohio State (49 points), Wisconsin (52 points) and Iowa (53 points) to their second-lowest scoring totals and North Carolina (67 points) and Purdue (57 points) to their third-lowest outputs.

Manageable draw

For Beilein, location and seeding doesn’t matter in the NCAA Tournament. It’s all about the matchups and who your team is going to play.

The Wolverines got the benefit of being placed in the West Region with Gonzaga, the lowest-ranked No. 1 seed and a team who only has four Quad 1 wins compared to Michigan’s nine.

They open with a familiar first-round opponent in Montana which shoots the ball better (56.6 effective field-goal percentage, 38.1 percent on 3s), but still ranks lower in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency than it did a year ago.

Awaiting in the second round could be either Florida, a team who ranks No. 60 in offensive efficiency behind eight Big Ten teams, or Nevada, one of the most experienced teams in the nation that has played in only two Quad 1 games.

Potential matchups against Texas Tech, which owns the nation’s top-ranked defense but lost to a 14-20 West Virginia team in the Big 12 tournament, and Buffalo, a veteran squad with two Quad 1 wins, loom in the Sweet 16.

From there, a possible run-in with Gonzaga or rematch with Florida State could happen in the Elite Eight, where Michigan has a 43.4 percent chance to reach, per KenPom.

But if Michigan learned anything from last season’s run, it’s that anything — even a busted bracket — can happen.

“All 68 teams can beat anybody,” Beilein said earlier this season. “Some were good enough to get in the NCAA Tournament or they were champions of their league. They're pretty good. It's a little bit of luck of the draw there.

“There may be a couple teams that are up there at one, two or three that have outstanding talent that they can win on a bad day. The rest of the teams are going to have to play well or as we saw last year with (No. 1 seed) Virginia and (No. 16 seed) UMBC, anybody can beat anybody."

West Region

No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Montana

When: 9:20 p.m. Thursday 

Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa

TV/radio: TNT/WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 28-6, Montana 26-8

Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 7 Nevada and No. 10 Florida

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins