Des Moines, Iowa — The NCAA Tournament is where college basketball players become household names.
Headlining this year’s crop are freshmen sensations like Duke’s Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett and veteran stars like Tennessee’s Grant Williams and Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura.
Narrow the field down to premier point guards and there are figures like Murray State’s Ja Morant, Marquette's Markus Howard, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, LSU’s Tremont Waters and North Carolina’s Coby White.
One name that’s likely to be buried on that list: Michigan junior guard Zavier Simpson.
“He's definitely underrated,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said last week before Michigan beat Florida to advance to the Sweet 16. “He doesn't put up big numbers as far as 30 points, 40 points. He doesn't have games where he goes and hits seven 3s or eight 3s. I feel like guys really only focus on scoring. Being able to have a guy who is able to lock in how he does on defense and control our team and do the intangibles is something that makes him great. You don't really understand how much he means to the team until he isn't there.
“He’s an amazing point guard. He always finds a way to make something happen. With a point guard like that, I feel like that’s something he's built up and grew up on — always finding a way to make something happen.”
In last week’s 74-55 win over Montana, Simpson did what he’s been doing all postseason: directing traffic, distributing at a dizzying pace and disrupting the opposition. He came close to an unconventional double-double with 10 assists and seven rebounds while holding Grizzlies guard Ahmaad Rorie to 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting, including a 0-for-6 mark from 3-point range.
Simpson followed that up by playing all but 25 seconds in Saturday’s dominant defensive outing that held Florida to its lowest point total in four years in the 64-49 win. He finished a point, an assist and a rebound shy of his second career triple-double, threw an absurd one-handed, off-the-hip bounce pass between multiple defenders that led to a fast-break dunk, and limited Gators guard Andrew Nembhard to seven points on 2-for-7 shooting.
“It's all about scoring and the dunks and all the flashy plays, but he's definitely one of the best passers in the country,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said. “He does a great job of controlling the pace of the game and making sure everyone is on track.
“He doesn't get the credit he deserves. I think he’s the best point guard in the country and he’s one of the best Michigan point guards of all time.”
Over the last two victories, Simpson set a program record with eight games of at least 10 assists in a season; upped his assist total on the year to 243, which trails only Trey Burke’s single-season mark of 260 in 2012-13; and improved his assists per game to 6.75, which ranks second behind Gary Grant’s single-season mark of 6.88 in 1987-88.
Moving on up
Simpson also moved up two spots on the program’s career assists list in the process and sits at No. 7 with 430 career assists after passing Burke (416) and Eric Turner (421). Simpson admits he’s not good at soaking in his own accomplishments. While he said it was an honor to pass fellow Ohio native Burke and set a program mark, in the same breath he noted “we won and that’s what’s important right now.”
“Individual accolades don’t weigh too much on him,” redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews said. “It was appreciated that he got the votes to be on the All-Big Ten (second) team. Nationally, I think he does get overlooked, but I think that continues to fuel him. At the same time, he just plays to win.”
That means Simpson is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team succeed regardless of his stats. He’s demanding and intense. He locks up and makes the right play. He knows how to spread the ball around and deploy his mystifying hook shot when needed.
“Any person with an intelligent basketball IQ could see the value that he brings to the game,” Matthews said.
While Simpson has had his struggles shooting on offense, that doesn’t take away from the fact he’s one of the toughest point guards assistant coach DeAndre Haynes has seen at getting to the basket.
“You don't find a point guard that can do what he can do,” Haynes said. “People say he can't shoot, teams play off and he knocks down three or four 3s. Then they say, ‘OK, play tight on him,’ and he gets into the lane, he makes the right play and gets 10 assists a game. He doesn't care about scoring. He just cares about the team.”
'Heart and soul'
Haynes recalled one time when Poole wasn’t making shots in game. Simpson told Haynes to run the next play for Poole because “he wants those guys to feel good on the floor and that gets overlooked.”
If a teammate messes up an assignment, Simpson will grab him and let him know. If the coaching staff is drawing up a play in the huddle, Simpson will tell them what he thinks they should do. When he talks, everyone listens.
“He's the heart and soul,” Haynes said. “We go as far as he takes us.”
It’s not just Michigan coaches and teammates who say this. Back in January, Illinois coach Brad Underwood called Simpson the “MVP of the league.” Two weeks ago at the Big Ten tournament, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Simpson is “one of the best players in the country.”
On Saturday, Florida coach Mike White joined the list after getting an up-close look at all the ways Simpson impacts the game.
“It's hard to appreciate how good Zavier Simpson is on film,” White said. “Incredibly impressed with his toughness, accountability, leadership, the way he barks at his teammates, the way they respond to him. The guy just doesn't make any mistakes. He is out there plugging away, playing the game, offensively and defensively, really, really good.”
It’s what Michigan has seen all season. And what the rest of nation is starting to witness.
“I’ve been saying this all year, he's the key for us to get a national championship,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. “Without the head of the snake, there is no snake.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 3 TEXAS TECH
Tip-off: 9:39 p.m. Thursday, Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
Records: Michigan 30-6; Texas Tech 28-6
Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Gonzaga or No. 4 Florida State in the Elite Eight