James Hawkins and John Niyo of The Detroit News break down Moritz Wagner's career day and Michigan's 82-72 road win in East Lansing on Saturday. Detroit News
East Lansing — Zavier Simpson appears to be putting the “quarterback controversy” at point guard to rest.
While Moritz Wagner stole the show with a career-high 27 points in Michigan’s 82-72 win over No. 4 Michigan State Saturday at the Breslin Center, Simpson outplayed his counterpart in a key supporting role.
Simpson consistently exploited Michigan State’s ball-screen defense and finished with a career-high 16 points in 30 minutes. He was 5-for-9 from the field, 5-for-10 from the free-throw line and added five assists, four rebounds, two steals, a block and no turnovers.
On defense, Simpson hounded Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, who finished with 11 points on 3-for-7 shooting but also had four turnovers and a season-low two assists in 31 minutes.
“I think right now Zavier Simpson has been the key for us,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He’s been able to make plays, he’s been able to —especially in the second half — take the ball right at their shot blockers and finish. He feels terrible about missing the foul shots, but man he did so many other good things. He did a great job on a terrific player in Cassius Winston, did a great job on him.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo gave Wagner and Simpson credit for their ability to exploit the Spartans’ defense, which entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage.
Simpson was aggressive from the tip and continuously worked his way into the lane but struggled to finish at the rim against Michigan State’s length, missing his first three layup attempts in the first 70 seconds of the game.
From that point on, though, Simpson made five of his final six shots — including three driving layups — and twice gave Michigan the lead in the second half. He also scored four of his points during Michigan’s pivotal 11-2 run in the final eight minutes that put the Wolverines in control.
“I just knew I had to get downhill, got a few bumps, fight through it and you got to be mentally tough,” Simpson said. “Glad to be able to finish a few layups in a type of game like this.
“Whenever it's my time to take it downhill, that's what I'll try to do. But right now, I’m just trying to get everyone involved, make the smart plays, less turnovers and control the offense.”
His lone hiccups came when he missed four consecutive free throws in the final two minutes after Michigan had made 19 straight. He made amends by making three of his next four to give the Wolverines a 76-67 lead with 59 seconds remaining.
Since regaining the starting role in the second half at Iowa two weeks ago, Simpson has finished with at least 15 points and five assists in three of the last four games. He led Michigan in scoring with 15 points against Purdue last week and tied for the team lead with 15 points at Iowa.
Over the last four games, Simpson has played at least 30 minutes in each contest and has scored 51 points with 24 assists, 16 rebounds, six steals and six turnovers.
“That’s probably my fault in the beginning (of the season),” Beilein said of Simpson’s progression. “Sometimes I go back in coaching and there is so many times you tell people so much that they are doing wrong, instead of what they are doing right. A lot of coaches get into that and right now he knows there is a trust factor between him and I, and this is something that every player needs. As a coach, you have to catch yourself sometimes and there may be some blind spots in your game.
“We had one great point guard here several years ago (Trey Burke) and it was like, ‘Coach, let him make two or three mistakes, don’t get upset at him until he makes the third mistake.’ And that went a long way that year. These are the type of things you have to coach, and as a coach I hope I’m always learning to do things better.”
For Simpson, he’s just glad to be Michigan’s starting point guard again and to help lead the Wolverines to a marquee win over the rival Spartans.
“I'm not really trying to prove anything,” he said. “We're just consistently improving. That's the main goal right now.”
And Simpson is leading by example.
Rankings don’t matter
Following a one-point loss to No. 5 Purdue and the 10-point win over No. 4 Michigan State, Michigan could crack The Associated Press top 25 for the first time this season when the new rankings are released tonight.
However, don’t expect Wagner to pay much attention to any newfound respect.
“I don't care what other people say about us because they didn't talk about us all year,” Wagner said. “We play within ourselves. All I'm going to do is whether they talk or don't talk, go to the gym the next day and get better with my teammates and that's all we really worry about. At the end of the day, we'll see who laughs last.”
Maryland at Michigan
Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Michigan 15-4, 4-2 Big Ten; Maryland 14-5, 3-3
Outlook: Michigan has lost three of the four meetings since Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2014…The Terrapins will be without forwards Ivan Bender (knee) and Justin Jackson (shoulder), who suffered season-ending injuries in late December.