Ann Arbor — Opposing coaches have often praised Michigan senior guard Zavier Simpson during their postgame pressers this season.
But in the same breath, several made it known their game plan has centered around trying to make Simpson, who leads the nation in assists, less of a facilitator and more of a scorer.
Louisville’s Chris Mack said as much back in December. So did Illinois’ Brad Underwood, Saturday’s opponent, after the teams’ first meeting.
And earlier this week, Penn State’s Patrick Chambers became the latest coach to acknowledge the goal was to make Simpson as one-dimensional as possible.
“He's a maestro with the ball,” Chambers said. “We were just trying to do the best we could against him and get to their shooters, and we did that. He's so good at what he does and getting everybody involved and making everybody around him better.”
The Nittany Lions put an emphasis on preventing Simpson from getting into the lane and spraying the ball to teammates for 3-pointers. They dropped their big man into the paint on every pick-and-roll involving Simpson and had the rest of their defenders stay close to the Wolverines out on the perimeter.
The result? Simpson put up a career-high 23 shot attempts, including a season-high seven shots from 3-point range, committed six turnovers and finished with 18 points as the Wolverines posted their second-worst offensive performance of the season by averaging 0.84 points per possession.
Similar strategies by Louisville and Illinois also proved effective. Mack explained the focus was to disrupt Michigan’s ball-screen action as much as possible and limit Simpson’s opportunities to get into the paint for kick-outs.
The result? Simpson finished the contest with nine points on 11 shot attempts and four turnovers as the Wolverines turned in one of their worst offensive outings in years with 43 points on 0.65 points per possession.
In the first meeting against the Illini, Underwood explained he wanted to make it a two-on-two game with Simpson in ball screens and make him take tough 2-point shots. While Simpson is crafty around the rim, especially with his running hook shot, he doesn’t pose much of a threat as an outside shooter.
“We feared his passing more than we did his scoring,” Underwood said at the time.
The result? Simpson attempted a team-high 14 shots and finished with nine points as the Wolverines averaged 0.91 points per possession (Michigan is 0-4 this season when Simpson takes at least 14 shots).
It’s a strategy the Wolverines could see again on Saturday against the Illini — and one that will make it tough, once again, for Simpson to strike a balance between getting his own versus getting his teammates involved.
“X is a very smart player. He knows as far as when to take advantage of what the defense gives us,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Friday. “He also knows when to make plays for others. He's never a selfish individual. That's what makes him special and one of the elite players in college basketball.”
Simpson said his goal every game is to get his teammates going with easy shots as early as possible. But when it comes to deciding what’s best for the team — whether it’s scoring or distributing more — Simpson said he just goes with game flow.
“I just read the game. If I see they're doing something, I try to do the things that they're allowing me to do,” said Simpson, who is averaging 8.6 assists per game.
“But besides that, I just try to make the smart plays, try to lead my team to a victory."
Simpson has scored at least 14 points and attempted at least 13 shots four times over the past five games. When asked if he noticed more scoring opportunities for himself in recent weeks, particularly with junior forward Isaiah Livers (groin) sidelined the last six contests, Simpson didn’t think that was the case.
“We haven't been knocking shots down as (much as) we have earlier in the season,” Simpson said. “So if those shots fall, it won't really look like that. The shots haven't fallen so that's probably why it looks like that you guys (media), that they're forcing me to score.”
So far this season, Michigan is 7-2 when Simpson records at least nine assists.
While more teams may try to turn Simpson into more of a shooter than a passer, sophomore guard David DeJulius acknowledged there are ways the Wolverines can adjust and still utilize him as a distributor.
"I think we've just got to get stops and get the ball out, first and foremost, running in transition and using our weapons,” DeJulius said. “I feel like guys are not really getting in rhythm at the moment. If we just continue to stay locked with one another, continue to trust each other on both ends of the floor, we'll find that rhythm somehow.”
Yet, Simpson isn’t concerned about opponents’ game plans and what they might do to slow him down. His sole focus is to put Michigan in the best possible situation to succeed whenever he's on the floor.
“I’m just trying to do what it takes to win, whether that's scoring or passing the ball,” Simpson said. “At the end of the day, I feel like if you play the game the right way, continue to build those habits, it will only lead you in the right direction.”
Illinois at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 21 Illinois 14-5, 6-2 Big Ten; Michigan 11-7, 2-5
Outlook: Illinois will be without sixth man and top 3-point shooter Alan Griffin, who has been suspended for two games by the Big Ten for stepping on a Purdue player earlier this week. The Illini rank second in the nation with a plus-10.4 rebounding margin and 20th in offensive rebounding with 13 per game…Isaiah Livers (groin) is questionable to play for Michigan.