Evanston, Ill. — Michigan coach John Beilein knew he had to even the numbers.
After junior guard Zavier Simpson was left alone and missed three consecutive 3-point attempts during a one-possession game, Beilein made the decision to replace him with sophomore guard Eli Brooks in crunch time.
“I’m watching X’s shots and I said, ‘That one’s in. That one’s in.’ I’ve never seen a guy shoot the ball so cleanly and not go in enough,” Beilein said. “When he started hitting the front of the rim, he’d been in there a long time and I said we got to do something here because we were playing four on five. They were just daring him to shoot and as a result we went with Eli. We have faith in him.”
Brooks rewarded that faith by making two critical plays down the stretch that helped the No. 5 Michigan fend off Northwestern’s upset bid in a 62-60 victory Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
When he checked in with 6:24 to play, Northwestern was riding the momentum of a 9-0 run while Michigan was mired in an 0-for-7 shooting stretch and desperate for points. Brooks quickly helped snap both, making the extra pass out on the perimeter to freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who buried a 3-pointer to tie it at 54.
Then on the next possession, Brooks knocked down a clutch 3-pointer of his own — his only shot attempt of the game — to give Michigan a 57-56 edge and its first of three leads in the final 4:43.
“Eli is a good defender, he’s an above-average defender. Zavier is a spectacular defender, so we were giving up something, but we needed to get something from somebody at that time,” Beilein said. “Him and Iggy hitting those back-to-back 3s when everything was going the other way was very big.”
Northwestern coach Chris Collins acknowledged the Wildcats switched their defensive approach in the second half after Simpson was able to get to the basket at will in the first 20 minutes.
And it worked. After Simpson went 4-for-4 in the first half with all his field goals coming at the rim, the Wildcats sagged off him and he went 1-for-6 in the second half, with all five of those misses coming from 3-point range.
“He’s a heck of a guard and he’s the guy that makes them go. He sets the table,” Collins said. “They have terrific players. Obviously, Brazdeikis is fantastic, Charles Matthews is a heck of a player and (Jordan) Poole got them off to a great start, but we just felt like he was the head of the snake. We felt like he was getting in our paint, so we tried to give him some different looks and I thought it was effective.”
Beilein said he doesn’t have a plan yet for when opponents opt to defend the drive and not the shot for Simpson, who is 0-for-9 on 3-pointers over the last three games and is shooting 22.7 percent (5-for-22) on 3s for the season.
So for now, Beilein is fine with Simpson letting it fly until further notice.
“I don’t know where this lid is on the rim for him and we just got to keep working on it,” Beilein said. “The ball was not like right or left or way off; that ball was going in. It didn’t go in, so keep shooting.
“Maybe there’s going to be a time down the road and we’ll say, ‘All right, we’re going to play with a non-shooting point guard and we’re going to win anyhow.’”
But if the Wolverines are ever in need of a backup plan, at least they don’t have to look too far to find one.
“I feel like that’s the catalyst of our team,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said of the bench. “Being able to have guys come in and make shots, like open shots that we weren’t hitting right away, and then Eli comes in and hit one…We were getting open looks, but having guys come off the bench and make plays like that is huge.”
Before his rough second half, Simpson channeled his inner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and showed off his deft touch with a pair of running skyhooks in the first half.
More impressively, both of Simpson’s hook shot layups were against much taller defenders. The first came against 6-foot-8 center Dererk Pardon in the lane and the second was over 6-7 forward A.J. Turner on a shot that kissed high off the glass.
It’s a shot assistant coach DeAndre Haynes refers to as “3 o’clock and 6 o’clock” layups, and it’s a part of Simpson’s game he worked on throughout the offseason.
“I honestly don’t know how he makes those shots. They seem extremely difficult,” Brazdeikis said. “I don’t even try them, but he’s seemed to perfect them. He’s so good at getting in the lane and then when he extends his arm out there, not even a 7-footer could block that.”