Niyo: 'Quarterback controversy' brewing in Michigan basketball

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Jim Harbaugh isn’t the only Michigan coach hoping to avoid a quarterback controversy these days.

John Beilein claims he has one brewing on the court as well. And while he says it with a laugh, this all must be a bit unsettling as Beilein and his coaching staff try to sort out just who the Wolverines’ starting point guard is right now, with Michigan’s exhibition opener barely a week away.

The presumptive starter, Jaaron Simmons, a graduate transfer from Ohio, is still learning the nuances of Beilein’s intricate offense, one that took Derrick Walton the better part of four years to master.

Meanwhile, the incumbent on the roster, sophomore Zavier Simpson, hasn’t just changed his name — he no longer goes by Xavier, though his coaches and teammates still regularly call him “X” out of habit — he also has changed his game, flashing some more offensive skill to go with the defensive tenacity he showed a year ago.

And with freshman Eli Brooks added to the mix — and drawing some early buzz a few weeks into fall practice — Beilein insists it’s a jump ball, figuratively speaking.

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“We might have a quarterback controversy — a three-man quarterback controversy,” said Beilein, beginning his 11th season as Michigan’s head coach. “We have a scrimmage coming up Sunday, and I have no idea who I’m gonna start. It could be any one of those three. That is the honest truth. So I would expect that to be revolving a little bit. And hopefully somebody wins it down the line.”

Revolving, or evolving. Either description might fit here, after Beilein finally broke down and joined the trend in college hoops by bringing in his first graduate transfer this summer. He’s also breaking in a new coaching staff — with two new assistants, Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes, joining Saddi Washington, who is in his second year at Michigan — while working with a talented team that’s short on experience.

What that means in the long run is anyone’s guess in late October. But it’s part of the reason Beilein had to apologize up front Wednesday at Michigan’s media day for sounding “like Debbie Downer” as he talked about the difficult nonconference schedule looming.

Three-man game

He returns a future NBA draft pick in Moe Wagner, and two key rotational pieces from last year’s surprise Sweet 16 team in Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. Former Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews is expected to fill another spot in the starting lineup after wreaking havoc with his athleticism on the scout team last season.

But who’ll replace Walton, the four-year starter at point guard who earned second-team All-Big Ten and league tournament MVP honors as a senior?

Simpson was running with the first team during Tuesday’s open practice, though Beilein said not to read anything into that. He’s also running full-tilt at practice the way Walton did — the wearable technology used to measure workloads say as much — and seems to be thriving on the competition.

“It’s intense,” Simpson said. “At all levels, it’s intense.”

Brooks, though he’s a longshot to start, has turned heads — “He doesn’t get rattled,” Simpson said — and put himself in position to see quality minutes off the bench, perhaps.

That said, Beilein wasted little time last spring in deciding he needed more experience at the position, and in the 6-foot-1 Simmons he found a first-team All-MAC player who averaged 15.9 points last season and ranked in the top 10 nationally in assists the last two years.

“But you can’t just come in and think, ‘All right, I’m the leader,’ ” said Simmons, who also strongly considered Ohio State as he weighed his transfer options. “First you’ve got to be a learner. I’ve had to come in here and learn a new system, learn my new teammates and everything about ‘em. And once I get all the way comfortable with that, then I can be the leader I am.”

Learning again

Until then, he’ll have to endure some growing pains, just like any other newcomer, though he’s done this before. A former three-star recruit out of Dayton, he started his college career at Houston before a coaching change there led to him to transfer to Ohio after his freshman year.

“He’s a fifth-year guy, but he’s like a freshman coming in,” said Haynes, who coached against Simmons in the MAC as an assistant at Kent State and Toledo. “He had to learn a whole new system that’s probably one of the most complex systems in the country. …

“He’s starting off slow. But once he picks up the offense a little bit more, you’re going to see a different him. … I keep telling Coach that he’s gonna be OK.”

And Simmons keeps reminding himself it’s a process, one he’s eager to see through.

“You’ve gotta give the kid credit,” Washington said. “I mean, he’s stepping out on faith here, and kind of stepping into the unknown. But I think he sees a lot of value in being in a place like this. He could’ve stayed where he was at and been comfortable. But would that have put him in the best position now and for his future? I think he’s a guy that thrives off the competitive nature of things.”

Simmons talked at length Wednesday about Beilein’s attention to detail, and how that’s already helping his own game, improving his patience and his pivots and even fixing the hitch in his shot that’s been there forever. He also was asked about learning new terminology — some of Beilein’s calls sound like they’re straight out of the Farmers’ Almanac — and couldn’t help but laugh as he did.

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“Actually, my favorite phrase so far is, ‘Take a trip,’ ” Simmons said, explaining that’s what Beilein tells an offending player when a practice screw-up merits punishment.

Then he smiled and pointed to the stairs in Crisler Center’s upper level: “You see (section) 229? I took one trip so far. Turn the ball over, you gotta take a trip.”

And for Simmons, it seems, the journey’s just beginning.