Champaign, Ill. — Senior guard Zavier Simpson has started to become the focal point of opponents' scouting reports.
And for the second consecutive road game, the emphasis was to suppress Simpson’s playmaking ability.
After Louisville set out to limit his opportunities to get into the lane last week, Illinois focused on shutting down Simpson’s options out of ball screens and keeping the ball in his hands as long as possible.
Two different methods. Two similar results.
"You have no idea how much respect I have for Zavier Simpson and how good he is. I think he's one of the elite passing guards in this country,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after Wednesday’s 71-62 win at State Farm Center. “We feared his passing more than we did his scoring. (Eli) Brooks and (Isaiah) Livers and (David) DeJulius and Brandon Johns, all those guys become really effective players because of his passing.
“We just tried to make it hard. We knew we were going to give up some points there, but we wanted them to be 2s and challenged 2s.”
Simpson entered Wednesday’s Big Ten contest as one of the nation’s leaders in assists with 8.7 per game, highlighted by three outings with at least 13.
Yet Illinois’ strategy to combat Simpson’s effectiveness in ball-screen situations was for players to not sag off their man out on the perimeter and help whenever he knifed his way into the paint.
The Illini also forced Michigan's guards to their left and tried to force contested 3s off the dribble instead of clean looks off kick-outs. The Wolverines shot 3-for-18 from 3-point range.
“Our game plan was to let them play two-on-two and take away the 3s,” Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili said. “So, basically just have a big who (center) Kofi (Cockburn) was guarding or I was guarding and when they went to pick-and-roll with Simpson, just keep it two-on-two. All the other guys protect the 3-point line and then just playing two-on-two basketball. It was simply that.”
Added Cockburn, "Coach told us to give them the interior because they're really good shooters. We just forced the two-on-two game, told the guards to get the shooters and controlled the middle.”
It took a little bit of time for the plan to start sticking after the game started with a frenetic pace. But once it turned into a “smash-mouth game” — as Underwood called it — and Illinois’ offensive rebounds limited Michigan’s transition opportunities, it started to pay off.
There were several instances when Simpson would spend a possession dribbling atop the key and trying to utilize a screen by senior center Jon Teske while the rest of the Wolverines stood around the 3-point line with a defender on their hip.
Even when Simpson was able to get downhill, nothing was easy. He scored four layups at the basket but also had three attempts swatted away from behind by Cockburn, who was able to recover and protect the rim thanks to his 7-foot frame and athleticism.
When asked about how Illinois guarded his team’s ball-screen action, Michigan coach Juwan Howard said: “They had a good game plan. Coach (Underwood) is a very good coach and I've watched him from afar. I respect him.”
Yet, it was Underwood’s respect for Simpson that led to a game plan that saw him finish with nine points on a season-high 14 shot attempts and eight assists — six of those going to Teske off ball screens and only one leading to a made 3-pointer.
“When you have two elite players in Teske and Simpson … we tried to make it a two-on-two game,” Underwood said. “We did a very good job of that. We knew they were going to score. We just wanted to make sure they didn't beat us from the 3-point line. I thought early they got out in transition a little bit and hurt us. But once the game settled, we took that away."
Howard, a Chicago native, had a homecoming of sorts on Wednesday when he returned to his home state for the first time as a college head coach.
After the game, Howard said being back in an opposing Big Ten arena stirred up some memories from his playing days at Michigan in the early 1990s.
"Oh yeah. That's why I'm back, baby,” Howard said. “I enjoy this. I enjoy competition. I enjoy playing in the Big Ten. That's why I chose playing in the Big Ten because this is a super-competitive conference with a ton of talent and gets you ready if you want to play on that next level.”
Howard went 6-0 against Illinois, including 3-0 in Champaign, as a player. Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu, a fellow Chicago native, made sure to let Howard know he also has a perfect record intact.
"Growing up I knew a lot about him, I heard a lot about him,” Dosunmu said. “He went to CVS (Chicago Vocational School) and I just told him I was 4-0 against CVS and now I'm 5-0. I said CVS never beats Morgan Park. He said he used to kill Morgan Park back in the day.”