For much of the season, John Beilein had talked about the learning curve for his freshmen, including Xavier Simpson. He wasn’t grasping all the concepts, offensively or defensively. Just last week Beilein said he’d need to see more in practice in order to trust Simpson in games.
“He understands everything we do, but the timing of it is still just a little bit off,” Beilein added after last night’s game. And when you’re just a little bit off with Michigan State, they’ll get in the gap or get a hand on something or they’ll be physical with you.”
As a possible solution, as suggested by assistant coach Saddi Washington, Simpson’s responsibilities were simplified on Tuesday. “We tried to really shorten his package when he was in there,” Beilein said, “and he was really good.”
Simpson played the best game of his young Michigan career in the 86-57 win, making 3 of 4 shots (including his lone three-point attempt) and handing out two assists in 12 minutes. His seven points matched his combined total from the previous month. Simpson didn’t get in the game because of someone else’s foul trouble and he didn’t stay on the floor because it was a cupcake opponent. This was Michigan State, and Simpson was contributing.
“I was so excited for him,” Derrick Walton said. “When he first got here in the summer, I saw he was really talented. He’s just a freshman. He just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. There’s so much stuff coming at him. … He’s a really tough kid, he always sticks to it. A night like this doesn’t surprise me. I’m excited for him and I’m hoping he can build on it.”
Simpson checked in midway through the first half and, on his first offensive possession, crossed over between his legs and took it to the basket for an “and-one” lay-up. Moritz Wagner said he saw something “click” with Simpson after that play, as if the freshman was not thinking so much and just playing ball.
“Obviously me coming straight off the bench and getting an easy bucket like that is definitely going to help,” Simpson said. “My comfort zone went to another level.”
His three-pointer was wide open, but noteworthy since he’d made just three previously (on 13 attempts), with his last make on Jan. 11. There was a timeout shortly after and the Wolverines mobbed Simpson.
On the bench, Simpson sits next to Andrew Dakich and the coaches, absorbing as much as he can and often telling Beilein, “Coach, I’m ready to go in. I’m ready.” When given playing time, his defense has usually been solid. Assistant Billy Donlon has said Simpson is Michigan’s best perimeter on-ball defender. His steal rate is more than double any of his teammates’.
Inconsistent offense has limited Simpson’s minutes. Oh, and Walton’s brilliant play, as Simpson said last night. But the two point guards shared the court at times against the Spartans, and even someone as hot as Walton could benefit from a breather now and then.
“Xavier’s play today was huge for us, to get more minutes out of (him),” Beilein said. “And maybe (we can) get guys a little bit more rest so they can continue to have that edge through the game.”
Michigan’s head coach talks often about “junkyard dogs” and how this Michigan team could use one or two. Simpson is a candidate. At Michigan’s preseason media day, when Simpson was told that Walton described his game as having some “dog,” the freshman agreed.
“I’m more of a dog type of point guard that’s going to knock you over and not help you up,” Simpson said back in October. “That’s just me. That’s my character.”
That toughness doesn’t mean as much if Simpson is in the wrong places on the floor or repeatedly missing open shots. But the confidence he got last night, operating within a simplified system, could be a big boost.
“I think his future is really bright,” Dakich said of his protégé back in January. “It’s his mentality that stands out to me. Once things start slowing down, as they have, he’ll do great things here, and he can definitely help this year.”