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New name, improved game: Lima's Simpson ready to guide Wolverines

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After a one-year apprenticeship under Derrick Walton Jr., Zavier Simpson is poised to take the keys of the Michigan basketball team.

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ANN ARBOR — In football-mad towns across the country, the start of the college basketball season hardly registers on the sports calendar.

Despite a tradition-rich program and annual high expectations, Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan are included in that group. The 2017 Wolverines debuted Saturday.

An overflow crowd did not flock to Crisler Center to see Michigan defeat North Florida, 86-66. By January, fans will take notice as the football behemoth that plays a few hundred feet away concludes its season. But the basketball Wolverines have an intriguing ongoing competition. Much like their football brethren who have played three quarterbacks, the UM basketball team has three point guards.

“We might have a quarterback controversy,” coach John Beilein cracked at media day in October.

The most seasoned player in the program is sophomore Zavier Simpson, a Lima Senior product and former Mr. Basketball in the state of Ohio. The sophomore played in all 38 games last season, averaging 8.7 minutes as the backup to Derrick Walton, Jr. He’s competing with true freshman Eli Brooks and Jaaron Simmons, a graduate transfer from Ohio University.

Simpson, who now spells his first name as it appears on his birth certificate, started against North Florida and finished with three points — he only attempted two shots — three rebounds, nine assists, two steals, and two turnovers in 18 minutes against the Ospreys. His stat line far outpaced what Brooks and Simmons did combined. They had four points, one rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one turnover in 24 minutes.

“My game has improved the most from last year in my pace, the flow, and my shooting,” Simpson said. “I feel like I read the floor better. I’m seeing things that Derrick saw last year that I may not have seen. I feel like my shot has gotten a lot better; I feel more confident. Right now, I have to keep working so the team can be great.”

After the game, Beilein said there still wasn’t clear separation in the point guard, adding Simpson’s defense is what gave him the upper-hand in minutes played.

The 2016-17 season was a year of learning and maturation for Simpson. Sure, he arrived at Michigan as a four-star recruit. But his season was spent as a stopgap when Walton, the heart and soul of the Wolverines, needed a rest. Simpson’s role wasn’t to be a scorer, and he turned the ball over too frequently.

The assignment will be different this season, even if Simpson doesn’t remain the starting point guard. Coaches envision the 6-foot, 180-pound Simpson in a similar mold as the departed Walton — someone who can penetrate and be aggressive and finish at the rim, shoot over big men, and facilitate the basketball. Michigan was at its best last year when Walton scored and got his teammates involved.

“With the tools we’ve got around, I definitely want to keep defenses honest,” Simpson said. “Guys like Duncan [Robinson], Charles [Matthews], Isaiah [Livers], Jordan [Poole], Jon [Teske], [Moritz Wagner], Austin [Davis], guys that can score. You want a point guard who can score, but also just get two feet in the paint so we can find open reads.”

When Beilein informed Simpson a graduate transfer point guard would be joining the team, Simpson didn’t sulk or seek a different situation where competition was lacking. He welcomed his teammate with open arms and kept preparing with vigor for the upcoming season.

“He’s a high-energy guy,” Beilein said. “His skill level has improved a great deal, and he’s a great kid to coach.”

The name change still is stumping coaches and teammates. Simpson has swapped nicknames this season, trading “X” for “Z.” The problem is not everyone is on the same page, forgetting about the spelling change.

There’s no confusion about where Michigan’s offense begins. Whether it’s Simpson, Brooks, or Simmons, these Wolverines might make a city and campus tune in before the ground is covered with snow.

“We have phenomenal point guards,” said Matthews, a Kentucky transfer who scored 23 points against Grand Valley State. “They make my job so much easier. They make the rest of the team’s jobs so much easier. Those guys have terrific talent, so I owe them a lot of credit for the high scoring because they get everybody in place and they control the tempo for everybody.

“I couldn’t be more blessed to play with three point guards the way we have.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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