Lincoln, Neb. — Michigan coach Juwan Howard had a simple message for sophomore guard David DeJulius before Tuesday’s game.
“The ball is in your hands,” Howard said. “Lead us.”
That’s because for the first time in a long time, Michigan took the court without senior guard Zavier Simpson, who was suspended for the Nebraska contest for violating an undisclosed team policy.
Simpson’s absence snapped a streak of 81 consecutive starts and led to the Wolverines having to adjust with the driving force of their entire operation watching from afar.
“A coach like myself had to work a little extra and I don't mind that,” Howard said after Michigan’s 79-68 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena. “But our guys did an excellent job of collectively, as a group, stepping in and filling the void of one of our best players.”
DeJulius and junior Eli Brooks shared the point guard duties and shouldered Simpson’s responsibilities — running the offense, directing the team, getting everyone in their spots — against the lowly Cornhuskers.
DeJulius, who has spent much of his time in the backcourt alongside Simpson, made his first career start but looked out of sorts at times trying to create for himself and others. He finished with five points (1-for-7 shooting), three assists and one turnover over 33 minutes.
“I think that's very tough to come from the bench and now you're asked to fill that starting role that X plays,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said of DeJulius. “I think he did a hell of a job staying aggressive, playing his game but also being our point guard, being that leader out there. Obviously, everybody has to talk a little bit more because X is our leader.”
But Simpson is more than that. He’s one of the most ball-dominant guards in the country. He excels at creating and finding teammates off pick-and-rolls. He is Michigan’s primary playmaker and biggest source of offense at 12.8 points and 8.3 assists per game.
Yet, with DeJulius and Brooks having different skill sets and strengths than Simpson, Michigan scaled back its ball-screen attack.
“We just knew that we had to get more movement. He (Simpson) is our best one-on-one attacker, best ball-screen person,” Brooks said. “We focused on moving the ball, getting the defense moving to get open shots.”
As a result, there wasn’t just one person orchestrating every play like Simpson.
There were stretches when the offense ran through Wagner or through the post against an undersized Nebraska team. There were also other times when the Wolverines turned to Brooks to get things going.
And while there were some rough spots — a 2-for-10 shooting start, 7-for-24 on 3-pointers and 17 turnovers — the Simpson-less Wolverines still managed to shoot 50 percent (28-for-56) from the field.
"You've got to play a little bit different because he (Simpson) has his game and Dave and Eli, they play their game,” Wagner said. “I knew that before the game and we knew that the game was played a little bit different on offense, but I just liked how everybody stayed aggressive and was confident out there.
“I think that's very important for our team that we see guys stepping up.”
Sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr., Wagner, Johns and Brooks did just that, combining for 54 points with junior forward Isaiah Livers (injury) and Simpson — two of the team’s top three scorers — both unavailable.
Wagner didn’t settle for outside shots and attacked the basket en route to 18 points. Johns was efficient and effective in a 16-point outing, using his toughness and energy to convert around the rim and get to the free-throw line. Brooks made four 3-pointers and finished with team highs in points (20), assists (four) and rebounds (nine) as he played both guard positions.
Howard also credited DeJulius for the job he did taking on more of a leadership role in Simpson’s absence.
“To have a guy like David DeJulius step up and be more vocal, especially during times where the team was making a run, or we may have had a turnover or we may have given up a shot (was good),” Howard said. “He came into the timeout holding guys accountable, holding himself accountable.”
But for Wagner, Tuesday night also spoke loudly about the voice that was missing.
“I think that's very important to see how much X gives us every single day,” Wagner said. “I see now how much he does except initiating offense. It was a great moment for me to learn that there's a lot more to just X’s and O’s. You've got to be able to talk, to get everybody involved, to get everybody ready.
“Dave did a great job with that, Eli did a great job with that and that's why we walked away with a win.”