Clampdown on Michigan's Zavier Simpson proves a winning recipe for Louisville

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Louisville, Ky. — Louisville coach Chris Mack saw how Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga had no answer for Zavier Simpson and Michigan’s ball-screen offense in last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis.

By the end of the three-day event, Simpson racked up 32 assists while orchestrating an attack that was averaging 82 points a game, shooting 52 percent from the field and connecting on 42 percent of its 3-pointers.

Mack had no desire to fall victim to Simpson’s surgical ways. As a result, Mack devised a defensive game plan that centered around the senior guard and it led to Michigan’s worst offensive outing in years in Tuesday’s 58-43 loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Louisville guard Darius Perry (2) attempts to strip the ball away from Michigan guard Zavier Simpson (3) during the second half Tuesday. Louisville won 58-43.

“It starts with Zavier, and the deeper he gets in the lane, the more it puts your off-ball defenders in a bind. How much do I help in?” Mack said. “In the Bahamas, he’d just get in the lane and spray it out. (Isaiah) Livers and (Eli) Brooks, they couldn’t miss. So, all we talked about was keeping him out the lane, and then hard closeouts.”

While Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s offense isn’t tailored to showcase one player, it has featured a heavy dose of ball screens for Simpson, who excels at getting into the paint to score or create shots for others.

Mack said he expected it to be a challenge limiting Simpson's opportunities to drive to the rim given the “thousands of ball screens” Michigan deploys. But to do so, the Cardinals made it a priority to fight over the top of ball screens and bother Simpson as much as possible. Like a quarterback standing in the pocket, the less time Simpson had to read and react to the defense, the better.

And when Louisville didn’t get pressure on Simpson, it used its sized and got in the passing lanes to try to disrupt whatever he wanted to do.

The plan, which required a team effort, worked. Michigan’s offense was never able to get comfortable and Simpson, who entered the contest leading the nation with 9.7 assists per game, finished 4-for-11 from the field with a season-low three assists and four turnovers.

"They did a good job,” senior center Jon Teske said. “They showed with their bigs. They were very active, their guards especially. But X still did a tremendous job, Dave (DeJulius) did a tremendous job coming off the ball screens looking for us. But they were connected on the defensive end and using their active hands." 

The emphasis to cut off Simpson led to rough shooting stretches. The Wolverines started 2-for-18 for the game and made just six field goals in the first half. Howard noted his team missed some open shots that it would normally make, but Michigan didn’t get as many clean looks off Simpson’s playmaking as it did in previous games.

And while the Wolverines were playing their fourth game in seven days following last week's trip to the Bahamas, Howard didn't use fatigue and tired legs as an excuse for the poor shooting. Michigan shot 25.9 percent from the field — its lowest shooting percentage since a 19.2-percent performance against South Carolina on Nov. 23, 2016 — and finished with its lowest scoring output since a 45-42 loss to Eastern Michigan on Dec. 9, 2014.

“We knew that their (centers) like to hedge on ball screens,” Howard said. “Our goal was to make sure that we get those paint touches that we were comfortable with getting throughout the year thus far. We practiced it. Fortunately for them, they did a really good job of compacting the paint, keeping us out of the paint and from getting downhill.”

Mack credited Louisville big men Steven Enoch and Malik Williams for the job they did containing Simpson “for the most part,” adding it was Enoch’s best defensive game of the season because “it had to be.”

“He (Simpson) will reject a lot of ball screens,” Mack said. “He will act like he’s using it and then drive the space and kick. Teams have tried to go under (screens) and Zavier is so clever. He just plays peekaboo and figures out which side you’re trying to catch him on and then he goes down the lane with that Kareem hook.

“That responsibility fell on our point guard defensively and also fell on our (center). Those are the primary guys that are involved and it might not have been perfect, but we were damn close.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins