Detroit News writers James Hawkins and John Niyo preview the Michigan-Montana game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Robin Buckson, Detroit News
Wichita, Kan. — It’s a coach’s job to identify weaknesses and exploit them. That’s how you win games, by probing and attacking. And not many coaches in college basketball do that better than Michigan’s John Beilein, whose offensive mastery is well-known in the game.
But the best also can admit their own shortcomings. And after 40-plus years at this, Beilein’s getting some recognition for that now, too. His Wolverines have suddenly grown defensive about their identity, scrapping their way to a 28-7 regular-season record, a Big Ten tournament title and a No. 3 seed in the West Region, where they’ll tip off Thursday against 14th-seeded Montana in a first-round game at Intrust Bank Arena.
Beilein gives much of the credit for that to first-year assistant coach Luke Yaklich, whom he hired last summer from Illinois State to be his de facto defensive coordinator. Every morning, Yaklich sends his boss an email with the day’s priorities for that end of the court, and even when they're not drilling down on those tasks, “he still does a really great job of keeping me focused on talking about defense,” Beilein says.
Michigan guard Zavier Simpson on defense and team mentality Robin Buckson
It shows on the court, as the Wolverines are ranked fifth nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric this season. But there’s also an audible difference, everyone agrees, and while Yaklich has a “great, strong voice,” Beilein says, they both point to sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson as the catalyst.
“When I first walked in the gym, my first drill ever, it was ‘1-2-3, let’s hit the floor and we’re gonna do some (defensive) slides,’” Yaklich said. “And (Simpson) was the guy right in front who said, ‘I got you, Coach Luke.’ I was like, ‘OK,’ and it just kind of grew and grew. And he backed up every bit of talk that he had the first couple weeks on the job. He backed it up with effort every single day. There wasn’t a better defender the first month of practice than Zavier.”
There isn’t one now, either, which is why his teammates — and coaches — were annoyed when Simpson didn’t make the Big Ten’s all-defensive team last month.
“If there's five better defenders in the league, the other coaches must’ve seen them,” Beilein says, “because I didn't see it.”
What he has seen, though, is the rest of the Wolverines following Simpson’s lead.
Michigan stays loose on practice day. Robin Buckson
“Quite literally, our defense starts with him, because he’s the point guard,” senior forward Duncan Robinson said. “But also mentally and physically, he brings something that sets the tone for us. The passion that he plays with, the pride that he plays with, it’s contagious.”
It’s also contentious, which is exactly the way Simpson wants it. He’s an equal-opportunity trash-talker, a player Beilein affectionally calls a “pit bull,” and a barely 6-foot guard who’ll fight you for every inch. The best part of the team’s informal summer workouts, he says, was all the “arguing, bumping, pushing and shoving,” and it's a safe bet that much of it was instigated by Simpson.
“It doesn’t matter who is in front of him, whether it’s (Michigan State’s) Cassius Winston or Luke Wilson,” junior co-captain Moritz Wagner said, mentioning one of Michigan’s freshmen walk-ons who had a rather memorable run-in with Simpson in practice. “He’s trying to win every battle.”
Simpson has always been that way — “Play hard, play aggressive, show some passion,” he says — even going back to his childhood days in Lima, Ohio, whether it was picking fights on the playground or picking up technical fouls in rec league games at the community center down on Collett Street.
And this season would be no different in Ann Arbor, especially after Derrick Walton’s heir apparent learned Beilein was bringing in a graduate transfer, Ohio’s Jaaron Simmons, ostensibly to step in as Michigan’s lead guard.
Yet as Simmons struggled to fit in last fall, Simpson got first crack at the No. 1 job. That lasted only five games in November, however, as Beilein saw too much dribbling and not enough passing, too many fouls and not enough of the intangibles he sought. As the coach explained last month, “he was starting because he knew more than the other guys.”
But while Beilein turned to freshman Eli Brooks as the starter, Simpson refused to turn up his hands in defeat. He came off the bench and led the crucial comeback win against UCLA in early December, reminding everyone — including himself — he could change games with his defense. A month later, having reclaimed the starter’s role, he showed he could be effective offensively as well, sparking a near-upset of Purdue with a 15-point, five-assist performance and then outplaying Winston, his longtime rival, in a statement win at Michigan State.
Michigan's Duncan Robinson on defense Robin Buckson
Ever since it has become increasingly clear that Simpson isn’t just Michigan’s resident “pit bull,” he’s the alpha dog. A point driven home — quite loudly — in the Big Ten tournament, where Simpson played 35 minutes a game, averaged 12.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists and hounded a succession of opposing point guards — Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, Nebraska’s Glynn Watson, MSU’s Winston and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards — into abysmal offensive showings. (That quartet combined to shoot 27 percent in those four games.)
And now when you ask Beilein about the weaknesses in Simpson’s game, he’ll tell you instead about the one he found in his own.
“A lot of times when you coach a young man, you pigeon-hole him,” Beilein said. “You think too much about things you’d like to see him improve in and forget about all the good qualities he has. I think you do that with your own children sometimes.”
All kidding aside, I think that’s exactly what happened here. Beilein finally realized he needed to focus on what Simpson could do instead of what he couldn’t if he wanted this Michigan team really do something this season.
And once he did — “once he knew I trusted and valued what he could bring to the team,” Beilein says — well, it all starts there for the Wolverines.
Where it ends, who knows? But at this point, it's clear Simpson will have something to say about it.
Michigan vs. Montana
Tip-off: 9:50 p.m., Thursday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 28-7, No. 14 seed Montana is 26-7
Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 6 Houston and No. 11 San Diego State on Saturday.