College Park, Md. — Michigan coach John Beilein’s postgame presser took a brief detour.
When answering a question about junior guard Zavier Simpson, he wondered aloud where his “Captain Hook” moniker came from and looked around the room.
And while no one could put their finger on its origin, Beilein conceded: “That one can stick. He's the captain and he's got a hook.”
It’s a fitting nickname and one Maryland couldn’t dispel as Simpson showcased his leadership and patented shot throughout Sunday’s 69-62 win that kept Michigan's Big Ten title hopes alive.
First, the running hook. Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis has witnessed Simpson knock down the shot countless times in practice and in games over defenders of all sizes.
But when Simpson used a screen from junior center Jon Teske out near the 3-point line and had Maryland big man Bruno Fernando — one of the league’s top shot-blockers — right on his hip, Brazdeikis was among the masses who had to take a second to register what just happened.
After using a hesitation dribble, Simpson seemingly defied the laws of physics by lofting a high-arcing hook over the 6-foot-10 Fernando that had the perfect mix of touch, precision and genius.
And for those who couldn’t believe it, Simpson did it a second time against Fernando. Same sky-high arc. Same soft kiss off the glass. Same absurd degree of difficulty. Same head-shaking result.
"I've never seen that first-half hook shot before,” Brazdeikis said. “I was near the 3-point line and I was like, 'Damn.’ I have complete trust and we have complete trust in him.”
Simpson knocked down two more for good measure in the second half, including one that came late in the shot clock and at a seemingly impossible angle over a leaping Maryland defender at full speed.
“That kid makes four skyhooks. Are you kidding me?” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I mean, one I can get. But four? How terrific is he? I mean, he’s the whole difference in the game.”
Offense or defense. On or off the court. It didn’t matter. Simpson made his presence felt and Maryland could do nothing about it.
And that’s where the captain part of the equation comes into play. Despite Michigan’s rough shooting over the first 30-plus minutes, Simpson steered the offense through choppy waters during two key runs late in the first and second halves and dished out 10 assists.
He directed another disruptive effort by stuffing Maryland’s leading scorer Anthony Cowan in a locker for the second time this season and holding him to 10 points on 4-for-15 shooting, including a 1-for-7 clip from beyond the arc.
But even when Simpson wasn’t on the floor for a seven-minute stretch after picking up two fouls 85 seconds into the second half, he never stopped leading.
“That was tough period for us,” Brazdeikis said. “We always need X on the court with us, but he was there for us on the bench. Whenever we had a timeout or a huddle he was there right with us. He's always communicating what we should do.”
That was critical considering the Wolverines (26-4, 15-4 Big Ten) were playing in one of the most raucous and rowdy road environments all season. Tons of former Terrapins were on hand to celebrate the program’s 100 years. Color-clad Maryland supporters filled the arena to the ceiling. The energy was pulsating well before tip-off.
Yet, Michigan was never rattled, never lost focus and never cracked. The Wolverines were steady because they followed Simpson’s stoic lead.
“He keeps the team together,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. “I still can hear his voice when wasn't on the floor. And you knew he when he was coming on that court there was about to be some intensity. Anything he did was with intensity. Just how he was talking he was intense. I don't know if you guys see it in the game, but he's an intense guy and it gives us energy.”
So, it was no coincidence when Simpson checked back in following the under-12 media timeout — “Twelve (minute mark) is usually my number with a guy with three fouls,” Beilein noted — and the game immediately flipped. The Wolverines went on a 12-2 run, held the Terrapins without a field goal for roughly eight minutes and scored on seven consecutive possessions down the stretch.
“I just think there's a confidence factor when he's out there,” Beilein said. “He's coaching me up what he wants to run. I ask him a lot about what he's seeing out there because I see some things — but he's been with us so long and won a ton games as a starter and his record is incredible — if he sees things and he wants to do things and he thinks it'll work, let's go with it.”
Added Brazdeikis: “He does a great job of just calming us down, running the offense, slowing things down, speeding things up. He controls the pace really well for us."
And the difference Simpson makes on defense is undeniable, whether it's shutting his man down or disrupting dribble-drives with his quick hands. He's the glue that holds everyone accountable and it has a ripple effect on the other four on the floor.
“It’s not just him guarding his man,” Livers said. “He does all the intangibles. He’ll come help box out or even when I’m down low and he sees me struggling, he’ll go grab that 50-50 ball. Obviously with that one-on-one you’re not going to get past Zavier like that, so his presence is huge on the court.”
On Sunday, Maryland and its fans were just the latest to witness what happens during a 40-minute showing of "Captain Hook."
“He's our leader,” Brazdeikis said. “He's one of the most talented players in the conference.”