The Wolverine

April 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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22 THE WOLVERINE APRIL 2020 BY CHRIS BALAS H ead coach Juwan Howard's first Michigan basketball team was warming up in an empty gym in Indianap- olis, preparing to play its first-round Big Ten Tournament game against Rutgers, when they were called off the floor. The players looked at each other with sad eyes, but not much confusion as they made their way back up the tunnel to the locker room, aware of what was probably coming next. Director of athletics Warde Man- uel, who'd had his eyes on his phone all morning, broke the news that the few media members in attendance had received around the same time — the Big Ten Tournament had been cancelled, and the NCAA Tourna- ment was likely to follow. "The Big Ten Conference will use this time to work with the appropri- ate medical experts and institutional leadership to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic," the confer- ence reported in a statement. "The main priority of the Big Ten Con- ference continues to be the health, safety and wellness of our student- athletes, coaches, administrators, fans and media as we continue to monitor all developing and relevant information on the COVID-19 virus." Manuel called addressing the team one of the toughest things he had to do in his career as an administrator. "You try to make decisions on what to do because there are so many unknowns," he said. "This is world- wide; it's not just an issue around Michigan or the Big Ten. This is an issue for America and the rest of the world, and so we have to put the competition into perspective today. "I told them all to take care of themselves and to let us know if they're feeling any symptoms or feel- ing sick at all, and we'll take care of them. I love playing games, and I love watching big games, but this is not about a game." Howard, looking forward to his postseason as Michigan's head coach, concurred. "Some things are bigger than bas- ketball," he said in a released state- ment. "This is a global situation and we need to make sure we follow the guidance and direction of the experts and health officials. "While we are disappointed of not being able to play this event, espe- cially for [seniors] Zavier [Simpson] and Jon [Teske], we need to stay bonded together during this time. We want everyone to stay safe and take precautions to protect yourselves and loved ones. "We are a Michigan family … for- ever." For the seniors, it would be the last time they'd wear a Michigan uni- form. As expected, the NCAA can- celled events in all sports, including the NCAA Tournament, meaning Simpson and Teske wouldn't get a chance to add to their postseason legacy, nor their Michigan all-time best 108-victory total. Their final postseason tally: two Big Ten Tournament titles, three Sweet 16s and a national champion- ship game appearance, an outstand- ing résumé for anybody. As disappointed as he was, Simp- son handled it like the leader he'd been throughout his career. " C o a c h H o w a rd d e l i v e re d a good message when we were in the locker room that was incredible. He addressed all the things we'd been through this year," he told in the aftermath. "He said something special about every player to uplift our spirits, and he told me I was a 'phenomenal leader,' and it was amazing to hear some- thing like that from him. "He'd been a leader in college and been in my shoes, and to hear that from a coach of that caliber was spe- cial. Everything he said from A to Z was amazing, and so it was good to end on a pleasant note." MIXED RESULTS Still, Simpson admitted, he'll al- ways wonder what might have been. He and his teammates had been pointing to the postseason for a while after injuries and inconsistent play had prevented them from contend- ing for a Big Ten title. The Wolverines vaulted as high as No. 4 in the country after starting 7-0 and winning a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, handling Iowa State and North Carolina be- fore thumping Gonzaga. Neither the Cyclones nor the Tar Heels were pro- jected NCAA Tournament teams, but the Zags appeared at No. 2 in what would be the final poll. U-M, meanwhile, finished outside the top 25 at 29th after losing three of their final four Big Ten games to fin- ish 10-10 and ninth in the conference. Advanced metric sites like Ken Pomeroy's, however, liked Michigan more. The Wolverines played the toughest schedule in the country, according to the site, and ranked 16th nationally. Only Michi- gan State (No. 7), Ohio State (No. 8) and Maryland (No. 11) were higher among Big Ten teams. "The Big Ten is a hard conference," Teske said after the Wolverines fell to Maryland 83-70 in the season finale (the Terrapins finished in a tie for first place with the win, their first Big Ten title). "We struggled out of the gate, we got a little win streak and now we've struggled lately. We've just got to bounce back. "Yeah, our record says we're 10-10, but I think we're still a really good team." They wouldn't get the chance to prove it in the postseason, but Teske wasn't the only one who thought the Wolverines might have made a run. Roller-Coaster Season Michigan Finishes 19-12 After NCAA Cancels The Postseason During his senior campaign, Zavier Simpson averaged career bests in scoring (12.9 points per game), field goal percentage (47.6) and three-point field goal percentage (36.0). PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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