The Wolverine

April 2019

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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APRIL 2019 THE WOLVERINE 25 a great job just taking command of the team." Simpson also needed to take command of deficits that popped up even amid all the triumph of last season. He shot a cringe- worthy 51.6 percent at the free throw line a year ago, hardly what coaches seek from someone in whose hands they want the ball at game's end. He also needed to find more ways to score around the basket, after using his quickness to pen- etrate. Two big questions, two resound- ing answers. Entering the NCAA Tourna- ment, Simpson's free throw shooting had jumped 15 percent- age points, to 66.7. In conference, Simpson knocked them down from the line at a 75.0-percent clip. "Obviously, the foul shooting right now is terrific," Beilein said. "It's as good as Derrick Walton's numbers were, and we know he was automatic from the line." Simpson acknowledges hard work played a role in his vastly increased charity-stripe contribu- tions. What he did, precisely, to get better … well, that's where the smile pops up from sealed lips. "That's my secret ingredient, that I can't share," he said. "It's all focus. I just have to keep doing things I can control, on my end. Keep getting bet- ter at it." He also controlled something else. Namely, the creativity involved in a 6-0 point guard suddenly evoking visions of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and drawing a "Captain Hook" sobriquet from his head coach. Simpson has been working on his running hook shot since he's been at Michigan, under all sorts of conditions. He's had workout teammates look to block him, shove him and harass him in all sorts of ways. Now, he's showing it off to the point that one opposing coach nearly needed his jaw surgically removed from the hardwood. In Michigan's 69-62 win at Mary- land late in the regular season, Simp- son connected on a quartet of high ar- chers, stunning the crowd as part of a 12-point, 10-assist showing. "That kid makes the four sky hooks," Maryland's Mark Turgeon said, disbelieving. "Are you kidding me? I mean, one I can get, but four? How terrific is he? "He's the whole difference in the game." He's made a difference in the whole team, as well, right down to the fresh- men. He's part of the reason some have come along enough to be on the floor in March. Freshman center Colin Castleton carried exactly the opposite tag from Simpson coming in. Plenty of length (6-11), but slight at 210, and drawing no Chuck Norris comparisons. Operating on Michigan's scout team earlier in the year, he'd often switch off onto Simpson defensively and find himself engaging in some friendly but earnest trash talking. "He'd score or I'd block his shot, and we'd go back and forth," Castleton re- called. Simpson toughened him up, the freshman acknowledged. "It's helped me a lot with my aggres- sion," he said. "He's got that pit bull in him. He's rubbing that off on me. Kind of being labeled soft when I first got here, I'm getting more aggressive and trying to be the tough guy every once in a while. Why not? You've got to be tough in practice and show that you want it. "It's rubbed off on me a lot, and we just go back and forth. Now that I've upped my aggression a little bit, it's helped." "I like to see that," Simpson as- sured. "I feel like, if a person can stand up against me, I can go to war with him. If it's a person that's going to shy away from those things, that's not a good thing. If we're in a game and it's a chippy game, or we're playing against a rival, it's important they come pre- pared for battle. "See? Goal accomplished. Now he's getting dunks and yelling. That stirs us up and gets every- one going. We need that, to see a freshman who has not played much get a dunk and show some excitement." Simpson has grown as a teacher and a doer, Beilein confirmed. "He understands that you have to shoot the ball, and what a good shot looks like," Beilein said. "He's seeing the floor really well. Last year, even at this time, and partic- ularly early in the year, he would take an extra dribble that would spoil something on the fast break. "He's really been on time, on target. Just look at his numbers. He's had a heck of a year." He's also not worried about getting supplanted, or what his role might be. He's got some strong ideas about the latter, like he does about most every- thing else. "My role is just winning games," he assured. "Sometimes it's going to be defense. Sometimes it's scoring, some- times not scoring but finding people. I just want to win games. I'm going to do the most I can to win games." And the doubters, those who said he'd never play at this level, much less reach a national championship game? "I'm looking at them and thinking, 'I remember the words you said to me,'" Simpson assured. "It's important that — even though I'm here — I continue to stay humble and not go out there like, 'I remember when you said that.' "But sometimes, I have the edge of thinking, 'Do you remember when you said that to me,' or 'Do you remember that comment you said to my parents that I overheard?'" He continues to answer, without a word. ❏ Simpson's "pit bull" aggression and mentality has rubbed off on the rest of the team, including freshman Colin Castleton. PHOTO BY PER KJELDSEN

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