Wojo: Michigan basketball makes an important point

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
From left, Teammates Isaiah Livers, Jordan Poole and Eli Brooks reacts to a layup scored by Zavier Simpson in the overtime.

Ann Arbor — They’re searching for a path and a personality, for a way to grow up quickly. They were teetering again, and then suddenly, in an invigorating flurry of shot-making and defense, perhaps the Wolverines found something.

On a day when the pregame buzz in the Crisler Center was about the football team courting a quarterback, the basketball team might’ve taken a step toward identifying its own. Just when it looked dire, Michigan got a desperately needed boost from point guard Zavier Simpson and rallied past UCLA 78-69 in overtime.

This is why coaches prefer a hierarchy, someone to count on when a team has to be kicked to life, then calmed down. John Beilein has three point guards but whittled the rotation Saturday to two, sophomore Simpson and freshman Eli Brooks. That doesn’t mean transfer Jaaron Simmons is out of the mix. It doesn’t mean Simpson has seized command, with Brooks starting the past seven games.

This showed the potential in the position, because at times the Wolverines looked lost, right before they won. They hit a paltry eight of 22 free throws and took ill-advised shots, and with less than 15 minutes remaining, they trailed by 15 to a UCLA team that’s good, certainly not great. The Bruins are out of Balls, now that LiAngelo Ball is off the roster, but they still have Aaron Holiday, and he was shredding the Wolverines.

More: Wolverines encounter trouble at stripe against UCLA

Then Simpson reentered and brought his feisty defense and timely shooting, and Michigan took UCLA (7-2) apart down the stretch. Five days earlier, the Wolverines (8-3) had blown a 20-point lead and fallen at Ohio State. They flipped the pattern and fought back in front of a raucous (yes, it got raucous) Crisler Center crowd, which turned its attention from Mississippi transfer quarterback Shea Patterson in the stands, to an entertaining show on the floor.

Michigan hit 12 of its final 13 field-goal attempts. Brooks nailed two free throws with 10.9 seconds left to force overtime, and then Simpson directed it from there. He drilled a 3-pointer and later added a layup in traffic, and the Wolverines never trailed again.

Plugged in

“When I got the opportunity, I just felt like we needed energy, and the crowd got engaged with me getting it pumped up,” said Simpson, who finished with 15 points and four steals. “(The Bruins) were scoring too much, and the point guard sets the tone on offense and defense. I knew it’d be contagious, and it wasn’t just me, the whole team played great defense.”

It’s the delicate line a coach must straddle when a team is hunting for its identity. The Wolverines are searching for roles and resolve, integrating three freshmen — Brooks, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers — with veterans such as Moritz Wagner (23 points) and Charles Matthews (20 points). There’s talent here but also holes, evidenced by Matthews’ two-for-10 effort from the free-throw line, an area of concern all season.

Like most coaches, Beilein greatly prefers a no-questions-asked starting point guard, and he almost always has one, from Derrick Walton Jr. to Trey Burke and others. But this will be a process, with Brooks seemingly running a smoother offense, while Simpson brings nastier defense. Simpson started the first four games before assuming a sixth-man role but has been the guy at the finish.

Again, that’s subject to change. It’s so fluid, Beilein is almost leery talking about. He said he practically felt guilty winning this one, after all the Wolverines’ offensive lapses while they fell behind 46-31. Images of the Ohio State effort surely stirred, but as we’re discovering, this Michigan team won’t look the same game to game, half to half, point guard to point guard.

“Any of you trying to figure out which Michigan is going to show up, get used to it, our personality, our identity, is not there,” Beilein said. “So just hang on. I’m trying to hang on, I gotta coach ‘em up. It seems like my whole time here we’ve had a young team, but we’re gonna grow.”

Beilein’s teams generally do, often improving against odds. They rose from the brink last season to the Big Ten Tournament championship and the cusp of the Elite Eight, losing by a point to Oregon.

Be on guard

This season will be more difficult, unless one of the guards suddenly does what Walton did and stamps his mark with great defense and decision-making.

Brooks has pushed hard for the responsibility, unusual for a freshman. Simpson has pushed back, shooting six-for-nine Saturday, including two-for-two on 3-pointers.

The key play came with 20 seconds left, when he picked off a Holiday pass and swept in for a layup to slice UCLA’s lead to 64-63. Holiday finished with 27 points and seven assists but committed seven turnovers.

“I thought Simpson was really good, not just defensively,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “I thought he was really good offensively, made some big shots for them.”

There’s no point-guard controversy, although if both (or Simmons) keep improving, hey, it’s not the worst problem to have. Right now, Beilein uses as many as 11 players in his rotation, and the good thing is, there are options. The tough part is, picking the right options.

Michigan has lots of experience elsewhere with Wagner, Matthews and seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, so point guard is even more paramount.


“They’re really good kids, we haven’t had any fussing with all three of them,” Beilein said. “But we felt nobody was really getting to feel what they need to feel in a game. So we went with those two today, and it could change at any time.”

This was a change the Wolverines (1-1 in the Big Ten) had to show. Their losses — LSU, North Carolina, Ohio State — weren’t debilitating, but they were wasted chances. Michigan has only two notable nonconference victories — VCU and UCLA — with a trip next week to Texas.

There’s still plenty of time and opportunities for the Wolverines to reveal who they are. Their search for an on-court leader isn’t over, but this was a much-needed glimpse at the possibilities.