WICHITA, Kan. — Eternal March Truth No. 147: Whack a snake in the head with a machete, and the bugger can’t bite you. The last 10 starting point guards to face Michigan have averaged 10.8 points, 3.5 assists, 1.6 turnovers and shot a putrid 34.9 percent from the floor.
The Wolverines are 10-0 over that stretch, in no small part because Zavier Simpson swings a machete the way Seve Ballesteros used to swing a 3-wood.
The sophomore Michigan guard heads into the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament nestled among the Big Ten’s top 20, as tracked by Sports-Reference.com, in defensive efficiency rating (No. 11, with 96.5 points allowed per 100 opponent possessions); steal percentage (No. 9, with 2.7); and defensive win shares (No. 18, at 1.9).
“He’s difficult to keep in front of,” Big Ten Network basketball analyst Shon Morris said of Simpson, whose Wolverines (29-7), the 3 seed in the West, take on Houston (27-7), the region’s No. 6 seed. “He will get to the rim. Early in the game, he kind of sets the tone. And that’s what makes their 3-point shooting that much better, because then the other team has to rotate help … and I like what he does defensively.
“You can see their confidence grow. [Freshman Eli] Brooks was playing point guard for a while and they weren’t really sure what they were going to do, and Simpson just kind of took it [over].”
‘He’s an initiator’
They need him. They need him on the floor. They need him in the huddle.
They need him because the snake on the dance card Saturday, Houston, has Rob Gray for a head. Over his last 10 appearances, the 6-foot-1 North Carolina native is averaging 22.4 points, 4.0 assists, 2.7 turnovers and draining 43.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Gray saved his best Steph Curry bit for last, dropping 39 points on San Diego State — including a game-winning scoop shot — Thursday night. He then woke up Friday morning to find he had 2,500 new followers on Instagram.
Something’s gotta give, kids.
“I haven’t seen him on the defensive end as much, yet,” Gray, the Cougars’ man-bun-wearing guard who went from provincial star to national cult hero, said of Simpson, the Wolverines’ No. 1 stopper.
“We’ve just been focused on how we’re going to guard them. And the highlights I’ve seen [are] a blur. [He’s] super-quick. He lives in the paint. He’s constantly getting his teammates good, open looks. And they’re a great 3-point shooting team.”
They need him talking. They need him barking. They need him yapping.
“Since I’m the quarterback of the team, it’s important that I take a lot of pride in it,” said Simpson, who’s averaging 7.4 points and 3.6 assists. “[I] need to be the guy that makes sure my teammates are willing to buy in as well.”
They need him getting his teammates involved. They need him reminding the rest of the Wolverines where to be. And when.
“He’s an initiator,” Michigan forward Isaiah Livers said. “He brought the whole defensive game: If you get scored on, it’s a problem. I wasn’t here last year or the year before that. But [if] you get scored on, it was, ‘All right, let’s get them on the offensive end.’ He said, ‘No, we ain’t doing that.’ On defense, you better be on the floor, talking, and [slapping] the floor, and we just all followed after him.”
‘The passion that he plays with, it’s contagious’
They need him to walk the line with more care and grace than he ever has, to find the balance between aggression and common sense in the heat of the moment.
Simpson and the rest of the Wolverines found out the hard way in a win over Montana late Thursday night that NCAA tourney games are called differently than what the strike zone with which they’d become familiar with during a crammed Big Ten slate. The Michigan point man was whistled for two fouls against the Grizzlies before the first media timeout and spent the last 16 minutes of the first half riding the pine.
“It is frustrating,” Simpson said. “But, then again, you have to adjust. They can call it light or heavy, soft or hard. You’ve got to be able to adjust to [the referees]. If they’re calling touchy fouls, don’t get touchy fouls. If they’re calling it pretty aggressive, play aggressive.”
They need him in the passing lanes, stirring up trouble. They need him at the top of the arc, eyes fixed, arms in smother mode.
“I think the defense, quite literally, starts with him, because he’s a point guard and picks up the point guard,” senior swing man Duncan Robinson noted. “But just, like, the emotional aura that he brings and the passion that he plays with, it’s contagious. And it affects everyone. It raises everyone’s level.”
They need him to tell us whether Gray really is the real deal, another Curry-in-waiting.
Or just another snake.
“I can imagine he’s a good defender,” the Houston star said of Simpson. “I see how quick he is, [how] low to the ground. He has all the characteristics of a good defender. [He’s] probably pretty smart, considering he plays the point guard position in the Big Ten. So I can imagine he’s a good defender.”
“But I kind of view everyone the same. I don’t care if you’re a good defender or not. Good defense. Better offense.”
Oh, yeah. This is gonna be fun.