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Michigan basketball: Tale of two Northwestern games demonstrates offensive growth of Zavier Simpson

Simpson scores career-high 24 points in Michigan's 17th-straight win

Zavier Simpson brings the ball up the court against Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Dec. 4, 2018, in Evanston, Illinois. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Zavier Simpson is far from a typical college point guard.

Since taking over as the team's starting point guard midway through last season, Simpson has been the on-floor leader for John Beilein.

In an era of one-and-done players and volume shooters at the point guard position, Simpson made his impact on the defensive end. From Jan. 2 through the end of the team's run to the national championship game, Simpson scored fewer than 10 points in 12 of 26 games and reached 15 points just five times.

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Simpson is a career 29.8 percent 3-point shooter and 56.4 percent free-throw shooter. Though he makes as big an impact on defense as any high-profile point guard does on offense, the junior flew under the radar because of his offensive limitations.

Zavier Simpson has set the tone for an excellent defensive season for Michigan. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

But this year, his offensive skill set is transforming right in front of our eyes.

In seven November games, Simpson's offensive contribution looked more or less the same. He scored double-digit points just once and struggled shooting outside the key.

Though he scored 10 points in back-to-back games against Purdue and Northwestern in early December, the problems were still present, as Simpson went 0-8 from beyond the arc and 0-1 from the foul line.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins picked his poison against the Wolverines on Dec. 4, leaving Simpson wide open from the 3-point line. Beilein watched Simpson miss 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions before sitting him on the bench for the most critical minutes of the game down the stretch.

Zavier Simpson drives to the basket against Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Dec. 4, 2018, in Evanston, Illinois. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

It looked like an offensive low for Simpson. If teams were willing to leave him wide open and he couldn't hit the shots, it would make it much more difficult for slashers such as Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis to get to the rim in a crowded key.

Simpson either had to adapt or risk missing more major minutes in close games.

He showed signs of improvement just 11 days later, hitting three 3-pointers in a closer-than-expected game against Western Michigan. He finished the game with a season-high 15 points.

Simpson only took six shots in the next two games, dishing out 17 total assists against Air Force and Binghamton. Since Big Ten play resumed, though, Simpson has been much more aggressive.

In the last four games -- against Penn State, Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern -- Simpson has made eight of 19 attempts from beyond the arc, good for 42 percent. To put that in perspective, only Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole are shooting better than 42 percent for Michigan this season (Brandon Johns is technically in that group, having made his only 3-point attempt this season).

The culmination of Simpson's improved shooting came Sunday night against -- who else? -- the same Northwestern team he'd been benched against about five weeks earlier.

Simpson lit up the Crisler Center with a career-high five 3-pointers and 24 points -- eight more than his best scoring output. He connected four times around the top of the key and once from the corner. He also nailed one of his signature hook shots and a pair of step-back jumpers -- one from 3-point range.

Zavier Simpson drills a hook shot over Purdue's Evan Boudreaux during a game at the Crisler Center on Dec. 1, 2018, in Ann Arbor. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It was a complete offensive effort for Simpson, who's always had a knack for finishing over taller defenders at the rim but has now added a jump shot that, at minimum, has to be respected by opposing defenses.

It wasn't simply an outlier of an offensive performance, either. In his last three games, Simpson has scored 52 points on 50 percent shooting.

Most importantly, he has made eight of his last 10 free-throw attempts, raising his percentage from a debilitating 41.2 percent to a more manageable 55.6 percent.

If Simpson continues to show improved accuracy from the 3-point and free-throw lines, he'll become one of the best point guards in the country, considering his elite defense.

Despite his recent hot streak, Big Ten coaches will continue to make Simpson beat them as opposed to more established scorers such as Matthews, Brazdeikis and Poole.

Zavier Simpson drives between Devonte Green and Zach McRoberts of Indiana Hoosiers at the Crisler Center on Jan. 6, 2019, in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

"When you play (Michigan), you've got to figure out what are you going to live with, because they space so well," Collins said Sunday after the game. "We were going to live with Simpson threes and some (Jon) Teske threes. Give those guys credit, they went eight for 15 from the 3-point line. When they're shooting like that and you add (Matthews, Poole and Brazdeikis) to that group, with Livers and those guys off the bench, certainly they're going to be very difficult to beat, whoever's playing them."

If Simpson continues to make shots, other coaches around the Big Ten will be echoing the same sentiments, and Michigan will be almost impossible to stop.

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