Ann Arbor — A brutal stretch has gotten even worse for the reeling Wolverines.
Michigan announced on Monday that senior point guard Zavier Simpson has been suspended due to a "violation of team policies" and will miss Tuesday night’s game at Nebraska.
"Anyone, one through 16, I will hold accountable,” coach Juwan Howard said. “You break a team rule, you break a team rule, no matter who you are. No one is bigger or better than the team.”
Howard said he’s keeping which team rule Simpson violated “in-house” and added his suspension will be re-evaluated after Tuesday’s contest.
“We have to further look at this thing, deeper and deeper, and see what we're going to do moving forward,” Howard said.
“(Simpson) was disappointed. He was disappointed for many reasons, but, overall, he knows that the team is going to miss him. He knows he let his teammates down.”
According to senior center Jon Teske, Howard informed the team of Simpson’s suspension on Sunday night. Teske said Simpson also sent out group text message letting his teammates know he wasn’t going to be traveling with them to Nebraska.
“It took us all by shock a little bit when he texted us that,” Teske said. “We feel for him, but we've got his back and we're always there for him. I mean, it hasn't been 24 hours since he told us, so there are still some thoughts going through our heads. But he is one of our brothers and we've always got his back.”
The unexpected news couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Wolverines (11-8, 2-6 Big Ten), who are in the midst of their first four-game losing streak in five years and find their NCAA Tournament hopes slipping away with each passing game.
Junior forward Isaiah Livers made his much-anticipated return from a left groin injury and a six-game absence on Saturday against Illinois. However, it didn’t last long as he came up holding his groin area after being fouled on a dunk attempt and exited the loss in the second half with another “day-to-day” injury.
With Livers hurt and Simpson now out against Nebraska (7-13, 2-7), Michigan could be left trying to end a winless streak on the road without two of its starters against one of the two teams below it in the conference standings.
“Obviously, we're in kind of a rut right now,” Teske said. “To lose him (Simpson) for this game, it's difficult. But everyone needs to step up and we know we're capable of doing that. I know the guys on the team — Dave (DeJulius), Eli (Brooks), Adrien (Nunez), everyone can go in there, do their job and help us get a road win."
But as Michigan struggled to fill the void when Livers was sidelined, it will face another tall task without Simpson, a multi-year captain who is considered the vocal and emotional leader of the team.
Simpson leads the nation with 8.3 assists per game, and his 33.8 minutes per game leads the Wolverines. He also ranks third on the team in scoring (12.8 points) and rebounding (4.3) as the engine that runs the offense. According to KenPom, Simpson is used on 25.7 percent of Michigan’s possessions and assists on 44.1 percent of his team’s field goals when he’s one the floor, a mark that ranks No. 5 in the nation.
On top of that, Simpson has played in all 135 games in his four-year career, with 85 starts, and is one of the winningest players in program history. And now, for the first time, the Wolverines will have to find a way to win without him.
"We're not drowning in our own tears,” Howard said. “It's not the end of the world. The mood of our team is we're solution-based. We're going to roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can get better as a group.”
In Simpson's absence, the sophomore DeJulius likely will earn his first career start for Michigan, with Brooks, a junior, also spending time running the point.
According to Brooks, Michigan’s offense looks “pretty similar” when DeJulius is running the show — compared to Simpson — with the rest of the starters in practice, even though DeJulius has more a scoring mentality.
Teske said it’ll be “a little weird” playing without Simpson in a game, but he’s confident both Brooks and DeJulius will be able to pick up the slack.
"Dave can get to the basket and he's a very capable 3-point shooter,” Teske said. “He's got a good eye for passing. He's good in the pick-and-roll. When 'X' isn't on the court, Dave does a great job of running the offense and getting us in the right spots.
“This will be a big step for him and he's ready for it. He's capable of doing it and he's going to go in there and he'll fill those shoes.”
And those are some rather big shoes for a scuffling squad that is at a crossroads and running out of time to change its downhill direction.
"Every team goes through adversity,” Howard said. “Through a process like this, it defines character and it builds character. I love how our team has been responding and we have a lot more season to be played.”
Michigan at Nebraska
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Nebraska
Records: Michigan 11-8, 2-6 Big Ten; Nebraska 7-13, 2-7
Outlook: Michigan is 0-5 in true road games this season. The Wolverines are 10-1 against Nebraska since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten…Nebraska has lost five straight and is 5-5 at home this season. The Cornhuskers are last in the conference in free-throw shooting (60.1 percent) and are led by sophomore guard Cam Mack (13.3 points, 6.7 assists).