The Wolverine

April 2019

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 22 of 75

APRIL 2019 THE WOLVERINE 23 BY JOHN BORTON T hose who back down during March Madness go home. Za- vier Simpson's shifter doesn't feature "reverse." The junior point guard performs with an infectious ferocity and the look a circling eagle gives small, scurrying mammals. He's apparently indestruc- tible, never having missed a game at Michigan, in a streak at triple figures and counting. The head coach of the Wolverines' standout from Lima, Ohio, insists that if you want Simpson to do something, tell him he can't. He'll prove you wrong, John Beilein assured. "I just have to play with that Rus- sell Westbrook type of mentality, play with a chip on my shoulder," Simp- son offered. "I feel like that steers my team. I'm the engine for my team, so it's important I come out there with a tenacious attitude, to steer my team in the right direction." His parents — Bobbie Carter and Quincy Simpson, the latter his coach at Lima (Ohio) High — steered him, when the chip became a little too chippy. The drive behind his success, Simp- son explained, isn't a recent develop- ment. "I've had that since the first day I picked up a basketball, before basket- ball, starting when I was younger, in kindergarten, in preschool," he said. "It's just something I was blessed with, born with." The desire to win and be aggressive in doing so eventually blessed Michi- gan with Beilein's latest point guard in a successful string of them. But the cursed side of being so driven needed to be smoothed out along the way. Simpson admitted his push toward coming out on top occasionally gener- ated a bottomed-out attitude. "Definitely," he said. "It would come out aggressive — verbal, physical, ex- tremely aggressive. Growing up, it was definitely out of control. It got con- trolled in the sixth grade or so — that was the turning point." The parental clampdown usually involved privileges removed, or tasks expanded. Sometimes, Simpson ad- mitted, he reacted even worse to disci- pline. He found out soon enough that wasn't getting him anywhere. Along the way, he began to find the sweet spot, on and off the court. "Sometimes it hurt me," he recalled. "I feel like it helped me become more disciplined, not wanting to experience that pain of something being taken away from me, doing extra chores, whatever it was. "It was definitely a threat at times. That settled me down. The King James Tournament was around, and not be- ing able to play in the tournament? That would fix me right away." His dad first put a basketball in his hands, Simpson noted. That changed his young life, even through the threat that it could be taken away at times. He worked his son out in the sport — early in the morning, late at night. Simpson — generously listed at 6-0 — wasn't ever going to tower over the opposition. But he would never cower before any foe, either. Carter did her part as well, Michi- gan's point guard recalled. "My mom was always motivation, kept me humble, kept me spiritually grounded," he said. "That was an im- portant piece as well." Simpson retained the fervor and the competitive defiance, going forward. He jettisoned much of the churlishness that accompanied it. That said, he continually proves Beilein's point, when it comes to those dismissing what he can accomplish. "I'm not a fan of people doubting me," Simpson said. "I'm always look- ing to prove people wrong. There are times I know I can do it. The person next to me just may not think I'm able to do it. "I was always told I was too small and had too bad an attitude to make it to an elite college level. I was told I was too small for D-I. But I made it. I proved the doubters wrong, and I just keep striving. You can't listen to everyone." He doesn't need to listen to those who insisted he couldn't make it at the next level. The numbers scream otherwise. With a year of eligibility remaining, Simpson stands among Michigan's all- time top 15 in assists. He helped Michi- gan to the Big Ten Tournament cham- pionship game with an eye-popping 30 assists in three games. His total of 224 assists heading into the NCAA Tournament ranked fifth in the program's single-season record books and puts him 11 away from a tie for second with Darius Morris in 2010- 11, behind only Trey Burke in 2012-13 (260). He's also one of the best defenders in the nation, Michigan's Wayman Britt Outstanding Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and on the Big Ten All- Defense Team this season. Yet he's always having to prove something to somebody. Sixteen months ago — at the beginning of a 33-win sojourn to the national champi- onship game — it was his head coach who needed convincing. Simpson hadn't become Michigan's starting point guard yet. Enough doubt existed that he would do so, Beilein imported a graduate transfer point guard, Jaaron Simmons. There couldn't have been a more di- rect challenge thrown at Simpson. His answer? All 41 games played, with 29 starts. Simpson scored in double fig- ures 18 times on Michigan's path to the championship game, leading the Wol- verines with 150 assists and earning the aforementioned team defensive honors. FIERCE IN THE FIGHT Zavier Simpson's Combativeness Is Contagious Simpson entered the NCAA Tournament with 224 assists, a clip of 6.6 per game and a single-season total that ranked fifth in school history. Eleven more would tie him for second with Darius Morris in 2010-11. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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