Maximizing Zavier Simpson

Maximizing Zavier Simpson

Submitted by Matt Way on July 5th, 2018 at 9:35 AM

[Photo: Marc-Gregor Campredon]

Fresh off a Title Game run, Michigan and John Beilein have plenty of re-tooling to do. Losing several rotation members, the team’s likely starting lineup of Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Isaiah Livers, and Jon Teske played only 29 possessions together (15 on offense, 14 on defense) last season per Hoop Lens. That particular lineup struggled mightily, but given the sample size, there’s little real conclusions that can be drawn from those minutes.

We can, however, look at each player and their successes in 2017-18 for clues as to how next season’s starting lineup might operate.

Here, we start with the returning floor general.

Simpson made significant strides in his sophomore season, especially on the offensive end of the floor. The Ohio native doubled his two-point field goal attempts per 100 possessions while improving his shooting on those attempts from 45.8 percent in his freshman year to 56.2 percent last season.

The point guard’s increased efficiency resulted largely from his masterful work in the pick-and-roll. Simpson’s operation on high screens was important due to the less reliable outside shooting around him – Michigan’s three-point shooting dropped from 38.5 percent in 2016-17 to 35.7 percent a year ago. Losing Duncan Robinson, Moe Wagner, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Michigan will rely on Simpson off the dribble even more in the fall.

Simpson’s most valuable asset is his first step and general quickness. His quickness is particularly advantageous when there are fewer defenders that can potentially impede his route to the basket. That primarily comes in two forms – in space and along the short side of the court. The latter is perhaps less intuitive because it results in less space to operate. But defenses generally commit less manpower to those areas.

[Hit THE JUMP for Simpson torching MSU, his growing rapport with Jon Teske, and much more.]

Bricklayers

Bricklayers

Submitted by Brian on March 26th, 2018 at 2:01 PM

3/22/2018 – Michigan 99, Texas A&M 72 – 31-7, Elite Eight
3/24/2018 – Michigan 58, Florida State 54 – 32-7, Final Four

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[Patrick Barron]

Michigan's games this week had little in common with each other. One was a delightful firebombing that was all but over by the second commercial break; the other was a tense defensive chess match. (For a given definition of chess.) Michigan shot a gorillion from three, and then reverted to that bad old Wichita stuff where you might as well hand out blindfolds and cigarettes. Michigan's efficiency stars emerged and then evaporated.

The common thread, such as it was, between both wins: the bricklayers. The guys who have flung free throws at the basket with the smoothness of a man with a basketball lodged in his esophagus attempting to aim a Heimlich maneuver. It was the universal consensus of the Michigan fanbase—both the crazed and somewhat less-than-crazed wings—that the season would end in what-if disappointment when several critical free throws down the stretch hit the underside of the backboard. Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews would be the likely perpetrators. This was okay-ish in a year that seemed headed for the NIT when Michigan was down 15 to UCLA, but You Just Cannot Win Basketball Games Like That. But we braced for a what-if.

I was amongst these people, and you're lying if you say you weren't, too. When Florida State whittled down a ten point lead into a shot to tie largely thanks to missed front ends, that prophecy loomed almost as large in my mind as "No Scrubs," which has been a permanent resident since we put it on a podcast a week ago. Even Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the laser-eyed hero of the Maryland game, has seemingly contracted the bug. Many thoughts flit back and forth when a very important basketball game is in the balance, and only in the aftermath can you hope to sort out the rational from the paranoid and insane.

In the repose of a Monday, it seems that a good way to win basketball games is to suck at free throws and be up ten anyway. Or 20. 20 is preferable.

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[Barron]

TJ Starks had no idea. Even afterward, he had no idea. You can maybe forgive a brash statement or two after he put up 21 in an A&M blowout of the defending national champion. Can't expect every 18-year-old point guard's browser to autofill the "enpom.com" after typing in a K. "Unguardable," he said, in a press conference, and the papers duly printed these words in big letters, because they were bold and silly.

I like to think that Zavier Simpson found out about this because he has a DAMN FOOL OPENS MOUTH Google Alert, but probably one of the student managers sent it to him. I like to think the student manager has a THIS MIGHT ANGER ZAVIER tab folder or instasnap folio or whatever it is the kids are using. This seems far more likely. I like to think that there's one guy on the team that continually shows Simpson tweets from six months ago, and that after TJ Starks had a press conference he fist-pumped and took a two-hour vacation for the first time in a month.

And I like to think that when the student manager showed Simpson the silly quote that he had no reaction except for a slight nostril flare.

A few days later, Starks is holding his own intestines as he asserts that he still feels unguardable. "Do you still feel unguardable?" is kind of a rude question to ask a guy who is holding his own intestines. But ask they do, and Starks answers in the affirmative, and… okay. You know what, actually? As a Michigan fan, thanks.

That went right in the folder. Even after a 38 ORTG, 2/11, 1 assist, 5 TO night during which Simpson set a personal best with six steals—five of which were during the first half blitz that turned the second half into a rote exercise—it went in the folder. Not acknowledging what happened might help you; it certainly causes nostrils to flare.

A couple days later a presumably-still-furious Simpson did (most of) this to FSU's two point guards:

  • CJ Walker: 2 points on 4 shot equivalents, 0 assists, 3 TOs, 35 ORTG
  • Trent Forrest: 7 points on 8 shot equivalents, 2 A, 2 TO, 89 ORTG

Simpson finished his weekend by anticipating a desperate FSU three as the clock ran down and getting his hand on yet another ball, forcing a guy who wasn't even his man into a desperation heave that was nowhere close.

Also he missed a couple free throws.

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[Barron]

I had no idea. Even afterward: no idea. There were no brash statements about Charles Matthews, really, just assertions that maybe he shouldn't be Michigan's highest-usage player if he's going to turn the ball over buckets—assertions that didn't seem that controversial as Michigan moved usage to Abdur-Rahkman so that he could set New York City alight. But you never know when something's going to click.

So a couple possessions after Charles Matthews got a drive swatted into the crowd by one of A&M's twin towers, he went in again. Up fake, large man jumps into crowd himself, easy finish. From there Matthews took the lead role as Michigan blunted every one of A&M's attempts to get back in the game—or even get it under 20. He drove by the third 6'10" guy, stopped in the lane, and took one of those jumpers where he's eye-to-eye with the rim. He drove through traffic, and put up eight twos that he mostly generated himself, and finished the game with just one turnover.

The resurgence of November Charles Matthews was a B plot in a blowout. It took two days and two minutes for it to pay off. Everyone has a plan until a seven-foot Nigerian comes from the three-point line to block your layup. In the aftermath you might look at the basket like it was suddenly a dangerous thing. Michigan certainly did. Their offense bogged down almost immediately as the shock of Florida State's length settled in. It's one thing to talk about it and practice for it and entirely another when you encounter it for the first time.

Here we should probably use Matthews's full name. Charles Matthews The Kentucky Transfer was the only player Michigan had who was not shocked by Florida State's athleticism. He'd spent a year getting roasted by five stars in Lexington, and knew what it was to go up against five guys with ten guys worth of arms. He kept Michigan afloat in the first half. Hell, he hit his first four free throws to aid the cause. When Leonard Hamilton wondered how his team was down one at the break, answer #1 was "you turned it over 40% of the time"; #2 was Charles Matthews.

After the year in Lexington, Matthews spent a year getting roasted by John Beilein. In the postgame press conference he told a story of how his name during his redshirt year was "Turnover Matthews"; he recalled being told to "touch 212"—ie, run the stairs at Crisler—every practice. Nobody who'd watched him drive with a wince midseason was surprised by that.

Here: two games, 17 two-point attempts, two turnovers total. Seventeen game-saving points in a first-to-55-wins game. No idea. But there it is.

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All year we've been talking about next year, hoping that will be the fusion of Michigan's newfound defensive prowess with the traditional death from above Beilein offense would… uh… get them to the Final Four. As Michigan blitzed through the Big Ten tournament, it became clear this collection of slightly misfit toys was able to outdistance their flaws.

This weekend drove the point home. Michigan's least Beilein players drove Michigan's least Beilein team to San Antonio. They've met halfway. Simpson has a semi-functional three pointer. Matthews has deferred more; has become more responsible with the ball. It was tough to see, for a while, when you've been trained to prize a rain of threes over all else, but it turns out you can use bricks to build something.

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[After the jump: the most bonkers stat]

Michigan 58, Florida State 54, West Region Champions

Michigan 58, Florida State 54, West Region Champions

Submitted by Ace on March 25th, 2018 at 12:52 AM


Champions of the West. [Patrick Barron/MGoBlog]

Say it again, Dana Jacobson. Say it again and again, everyone.

Michigan is going to the Final Four. John Beilein, the true king of Ann Arbor, is one victory—against, of all teams, 11-seed Loyola—away from his second championship game in six years and an opportunity for the program's first national title since 1989.

The Wolverines got there in a most un-Beilein way. This was not Thursday, when they rained fire on Texas A&M. This is what many fans feared Thursday would look like, as a very large, athletic Florida State squad held Michigan well under a point per possession. Michigan, meanwhile, couldn't hit a three-pointer, going an appalling 4-for-22 from beyond the arc. Any past Beilein team would've lost this game.

But not this one. For as good as FSU's defense played, Michigan's was a cut above. The Seminoles had one more field goal (16) than turnovers committed (15). They kept a transition-reliant FSU scoreless on fast breaks; the Wolverines scored 12 in transition because of live-ball turnovers. That, above all, made the difference in a game featuring great halfcourt defense and ugly shooting.

"I've never seen a team work so hard and be so connected on both ends of the floor, even when things do not go right on the offensive end," said Beilein. "They were exceptional on defense. We had that string of plays where Moe was wide open, Charles is wide open, Duncan was wide open, and they didn't go down and sulk at the other end. They ended up just playing better defense so that we could win the game."


Charles Matthews surprised a lot of people tonight. [Barron]

Michigan's heroes weren't the ones you would've expected a month or two ago. Charles Matthews scored M's first points on an and-one dunk, flashed a rare smile, and proceeded to carry the offense through some truly ugly stretches. Using strong drives, sharp pivots, and tough finishes, Matthews finished with a game-high 17 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, a steal, and only one turnover.

"It was special," he said. "Last year all I used to hear in practice was turnover Matthews, turnover Matthews. And go see 212, that's when I have to run up to the top of the bleachers. But I stayed with it. Coach stayed on me. He continued to believe in me, and that continued to help my confidence grow. My teammates believe in me, and I believe in them. So it's just been a special feeling."

Zavier Simpson set the tone early, as well, when he ripped the ball away from FSU's Terance Mann as a parent would take a toy from an unruly child. While the stat line is packed—nine points on 4/8 shooting, three boards, five assists, one turnover, three steals—it doesn't do justice to Simpson's masterful control over the game. On a normal Michigan shooting night, Simpson threatens double-digit assists. Meanwhile, he hit a couple huge shots late and played his usual superlative defense. The two Seminole point guards, Trent Forrest and CJ Walker, combined to go 1-for-9 from the field with five turnovers.

Nobody else, though, could find any consistency on offense. Moe Wagner had an especially brutal outing, failing to hit a field goal in the first half before finishing with 11 points on 15 shot equivalents. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman needed ten shot equivalents to net his nine points. Duncan Robinson didn't make his first three-pointer until 2:25 remained, when his corner triple gave the Wolverines a seemingly insurmountable ten-point lead.

Florida State nearly surmounted it. Free throws, that familiar bugaboo, nearly cost Michigan dearly this time, as Simpson and MAAR went on a 2-for-5 stretch that included missing the front end of two one-and-ones to allow FSU to pull within a single possession twice. After Phil Cofer's putback got the 'Noles cut the margin to two, however, Robinson calmly sunk two free throws. PJ Savoy missed a wild, contested three-pointer with 13 seconds to play, Robinson grabbed the rebound, and for reasons unbeknownst to everyone other than Leonard Hamilton, Robinson was allowed to dribble out the clock.

"We knew they were going to make a run," said Abdur-Rahkman. "We each had to weather the storm and get stops when we needed it. And I think that's what we did."

Michigan is going to the Final Four—say it again—because they got stops. What a team. What a coaching staff. What a world.

[Hit THE JUMP for more photos and the box score.]

This Week’s Obsession: Who’s Afraid of the TAMU Zone?

This Week’s Obsession: Who’s Afraid of the TAMU Zone?

Submitted by Seth on March 22nd, 2018 at 2:01 PM

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go IN! [photo by JD Scott]

THIS ARTICLE HAS A SPONSOR: It’s Nick Hopwood, our MGoFinancial Planner from Peak Wealth Management. If you’ve got a financial question, let Nick know. And when you’re ready to figure out how you’re going to plan your retirement and pay for your kids’ college when you just got done paying for your own, don’t wait to do something about that.

Legal disclosure in tiny font: Calling Nick our official financial planner is not intended as financial advice; Nick is an advertiser who financially supports MGoBlog. MGoBlog is not responsible for any advice or other communication provided to an investor by any financial advisor, and makes no representations or warranties as to the suitability of any particular financial advisor and/or investment for a specific investor.

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The Question:

What started us off was this article in the Houston Chronicle:

Texas A&M point guard T.J. Starks fits right in among these bright lights near Hollywood. The loquacious Starks on Wednesday described his game as "unguardable."

"Unstoppable," he added, in case anyone had a hard time grasping the meaning of "unguardable."

Alex: tl;dr: A&M's bad point guard described himself as unguardable.

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Seth: Starks’s offensive ratings last 10 games: 96, 93, 106, 38, 79, 206 (Vanderbilt), 78, 76, 78, 83.

Alex: TJ Starks is sometimes not great but this is an interesting read on Williams.

Williams would be best in a role similar to Clint Capela in Houston: anchoring the defense, setting screens, and catching lobs with four 3-point shooters around him. He would be indefensible if he switched spots with Moritz Wagner, the Michigan center he will face in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, who typically plays as the lone big man in John Beilein’s spread offense. The Aggies don’t have the pieces to run something similar.

This is also what I've been thinking:

With A&M head coach Billy Kennedy keeping Davis in the lane as much as possible, Williams has spent a lot of time in college chasing smaller players all over the floor. He put the clamps on UNC senior Theo Pinson, a 6-foot-6 point forward who was the catalyst for their offense, holding him to four points on 2-of-7 shooting. He will have to do something similar against Michigan, which uses senior Duncan Robinson III and freshman Isaiah Livers as small-ball 4s around the 3-point line. How Kennedy handles the matchups upfront will be fascinating. Williams is his best bet to shut down Wagner, Michigan’s best NBA prospect, but there’s no way Davis can guard their smaller players on the perimeter. Kennedy may have to bench his best scorer and play Williams and Trocha-Morelos together, or go to a zone to hide him.

They pretty much have to go zone.

Ace: I’m very okay with a team playing their change-up defense as their base defense.

Seth: Yeah they're not going to be Syracusian at it.

Brian: we're so ass vs zone this year though.

Ace: I think Teske will play a big role tonight. His passing in the middle of the 2-3 has been very good when he’s had the opportunity.

Alex: I'd be willing to place a bet that Davis will get Moe into foul trouble and Teske will have to play a lot. Then they can probably go man.

[After THE JUMP: Alex and Ace set up on the wings, and the rest of us shoot from the key sometimes]

Pre-Tourney Mailbag, Part Two: The Z Factor, Defensive Credit, Tightening The Rotation

Pre-Tourney Mailbag, Part Two: The Z Factor, Defensive Credit, Tightening The Rotation

Submitted by Ace on March 14th, 2018 at 10:19 AM

SPONSOR NOTE. HomeSure Lending is once again sponsoring our NCAA Tournament coverage this year. Matt will be hosting an informal watch party tomorrow night at HOMES Brewery, and buying the first round for any MGoBlog readers who come. If you're looking at buying a house this spring/summer you should talk to him soon.

ICYMI. Part one of the pre-tourney mailbag addressing what consitutes success, the sixth man factor, the possibility of a two-big lineup, and late game free-throw lineups can be found right here.

Brian also posted the Montana preview yesterday evening if you missed it, and those of you still filling out brackets are strongly encouraged to utilize Seth's bracket assist tool.

MAARch Madness, Moe Buckets, or The Z Factor?


Z's huge leap needs to hold. [Campredon]

This is a tough one. The cop-out (but still true!) answer is Michigan will need all three to play at a consistently high level to make a deep run. As Matt Painter will readily tell you, Moe Wagner is the player who makes the team so dangerous by allowing Beilein to run a true five-out offense. The team's late season surge coincided with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman taking on a bigger role and thriving.

I have to go with Simpson, though. He's the catalyst for this team on both ends of the floor. On offense, he's the guy running the pick-and-roll, and he's being leaned on more than ever as a finisher in addition to a distributor. On defense, he's tasked with shutting down the opponent's best perimeter threat.

Simpson is also the only one of the three who doesn't have a reliable backup. Wagner has Teske, who's a downgrade on offense but an upgrade on defense. MAAR has Poole, who's liable to score double-digit points in a handful of shots at any given moment. Simpson has Jaaron Simmons or Eli Brooks; while Simmons has looked steadier down the stretch, neither has exactly grabbed hold of a role—Simmons didn't score in the BTT and has multiple assists in a game just once since January. Both are huge defensive downgrades from Simpson, too.

The team's defensive renaissance has allowed them to absorb some bad outings from one of their usual go-to guys without taking losses. That could conceivably happen in the tourney with a down game from Wagner or MAAR; I don't see it happening if Simpson doesn't maintain his current run of form. It's not just about what the player brings; it's about what the player behind them brings.

[Hit THE JUMP for more on Z's impact, who gets the defensive credit, the rotation going forward, and more.]

Michigan 75, Purdue 66, Big Ten Tournament Champs

Michigan 75, Purdue 66, Big Ten Tournament Champs

Submitted by Ace on March 4th, 2018 at 7:44 PM

BIG NASTY. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]

Four wins. Four days. A trophy.

Old hat.

For the second straight year, Michigan pulled off the improbable and ran through the best the Big Ten had to offer for a conference tournament championship. They sealed it this evening by running away from Purdue, which never held a lead after the game's opening three minutes. The big, bad Boilermakers could only stay at arm's length, then the Wolverines laid the hammer down in an incredible second half only marred by some late free-throw trouble that never put the outcome in serious doubt.

Just about everything John Beilein touched turned to gold; he outdueled Purdue's Matt Painter in what's been the Big Ten's most intricately fascinating coaching matchup the last two years. Painter chose to hedge hard against the ballhandler on high screens in the first half; while Michigan went 3-for-11 on mostly wide-open threes, they drew Purdue's towering big men far from the hoop—the Wolverines went 13-for-19 inside the arc and didn't have a shot blocked or commit a turnover.

Much of that was due to the stellar play of Jon Teske, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the first-half minutes after Beilein gave Wagner the usual break following his first foul. Teske was a force on both ends and Beilein let him ride for 12 first-half minutes. Teske rewarded his coach's faith with dunks off the pick-and-roll, increasingly lengthy midrange shots off the pick-and-pop, a thunderous block, and a stellar late defensive posseession on an otherwise dominant Isaac Haas, who picked up a cheap frustration foul in response.

"I really have no words to explain," said Teske.


Big lights. Little dude. Huge buckets. [Campredon]

Zavier Simpson was masterful on both ends as well. His chemistry with Teske created multiple open baskets. He got the hoop with regularity and finished. When Purdue overplayed him on screens, he generated wide open looks for Michigan's shooters. He played lockdown defense on Purdue's best perimeter player, Carsen Edwards, who went only 3-for-9 in the first half.

"He's a pit bull," said Beilein. "We have a picture of a big, mean pit bull in our locker room for every game. And he is that guy. He's one that loves to play defense."

"Muhammad and I just wanted to come out and set the tone," said Simpson. "We wanted to play great defense from the start so our energy could be contagious. And as you've seen, others followed."

While the Wovlerines went into the break up 38-33, however, it felt like they'd missed a golden opportunity to blow the game open. The announcers, and most everyone else, felt a tight finish coming.

That did not happen. Painter chose not to continue playing with fire on screens, switching them to prevent open looks instead of sticking with the aggressive hedging approach. After a few forced shots over Haas, Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman ruthlessly attacked the basket, combining for 15 second-half points and five assists.

"It takes a long time to sort of build up the substance to your team that can persevere and just won't give in," said Beilein. "They won't give in to fatigue. They won't give in to momentum changes. They just stick in there."

"You always learn something when you play them," said Painter. "And you fix something. As a coach you think you've got them figured out, you don't have them figured out."


Wagner was all smiles in the second half. [Campredon]

Moe Wagner, with his mother watching from the stands, removed any doubt of the outcome. His 4-for-5 second-half performance featured a Dirk-like turnaround fallaway three as the shot clock expired, a blow-by layup, and another triple right in the grill of Matt Haarms. He did more than just score; he led the break after a steal then hit a trailing MAAR for a big three, and he battled hard on the boards, helping M limit Purdue to three offensive rebounds after they'd pulled down seven in the first half.

"Those guards are good but not everybody has a guy like Wagner that can stick 3s, drive the ball, and play with passion," said Painter.

Then Duncan Robinson got a thunderblock on Carsen Edwards and Zavier Simpson slipped a beautiful pass to Teske for a posterizing dunk on Haas, and the party was on. Michigan stretched the lead as far as 18 before a too-little, too-late Purdue run got them as close as seven while the Wolverines scuffled at the charity stripe. That's a concern for later.

For now, Michigan is once again on a tear heading into the NCAA Tournament, and today's championship may well have locked up a three-seed. John Beilein is a wizard.


Back-to-back champs. [Campredon]

[Hit THE JUMP for more photos and the box score.]