Zavier Simpson was the last player to leave the court two weeks ago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. About 20 minutes before tip-off of Michigan's scheduled Big Ten tournament opener against Rutgers, the players from both teams were told to vacate the court and return to their respective locker rooms.
Soon after, athletic director Warde Manuel and head coach Juwan Howard broke the news to the players that the tournament was being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NCAA Tournament soon would be, too, and just like that, so were the college careers for the team’s two senior leaders, Simpson and Jon Teske.
"It was kind of emotional," Simpson told host Matt Shepard on WBBL radio Wednesday, in his first public comments since that day. "The first thing I thought of was just, ‘Wow, is this how it’s going to end?’ It was very surreal. I was extremely surprised at the time. But at the same time, it would be a bad time for me to be selfish at a time like this when family and friends and other people are getting affected by this. This is something that can affect an individual’s life. It’s important that I just kind of put that aside for a while until it’s recovered.”
Simpson finished his career as one of only three players in program history to record more than 1,000 points and 500 assists, his 667 career assists just 64 shy of Gary Grant’s school record. He and Teske also made three straight trips to the Sweet 16, reached the national title game as sophomores, and won back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles in 2017-18. They had designs on adding to those accomplishments at the end of an up-and-down season under a new head coach this spring, a season that included a one-game suspension for Simpson — a team captain — in late January stemming from a late-night traffic accident.
“We were looking to try to win the Big ten Tournament,” Simpson said. “We thought we had a good plan for it to win it. Being national champions was one of the goals that I wanted to accomplish, for sure. Just all that stuff just going down the drain. Being grateful and embracing every single moment is something I’ve definitely learned."
That's something he admits he learned over his college career, biding his time behind starter Derrick Walton Jr. as a freshman and eventually seizing a leadership role as an upperclassman while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors.
"Being able to compete every single day," he said, when asked about what he’ll take away from the experience. "Things not going your way, through the ups and downs, being able to overcome those and still being able to stay focused on what’s important — the future goals. College has definitely taught me mental toughness. From my freshman year, a big prospect coming out of high school not playing much, just learning from guys who’ve been there.
"I just said to myself that I’d embrace every single opportunity. From all the coaching staffs throughout the four years that I’ve been through, I just embraced it all.”
Simpson credits his father, Quincey, who was his high school coach, for laying the foundation for all that. But he also talked about playing for both John Beilein and Howard at Michigan.
"Coach B was an X’s and O’s guy — his X’s and O’s game was crazy,” Simpson said. “He had a game plan for every defensive strategy, for every team. His study of the game was extremely important to him, and that motivated me to become more of a student of the game, by watching more film and doing things that could help my game.
"Coach Juwan Howard, he was a very motivational coach, a guy you just wanted to play hard for, a guy who talked about family and brotherhood. He showed me what the definition of a family really truly is, and that definitely will stick with me forever. He’s a great guy, very influential on and off the court. He has built and installed a strong relationship with everyone on the team, which is extremely important when you talk about college guys trying to reach goals."
As for Simpson’s goal, playing professional basketball, he’s in limbo like everyone else, waiting to see what the pre-draft process will look like once the NBA figures out its schedule amid the coronavirus shutdown.
"I don’t know, I’ve got to start talking with agents, start getting that process going," Simpson said. "We’ll see where it goes. Hopefully the world can get better soon so we can go back to the norm. Until then, I’m gonna do the most I can on my end."