ANN ARBOR, Mich. — First he got the name. Then he got the namesake.
Michigan point guard Xavier Simpson was described as playing like a pit bull by his coach John Beilein last year after he worked his way into the starting lineup on an NCAA runner-up team as a sophomore.
It stuck. And Simpson decided he liked it. “People say I remind them of a pit bull so I’ll take it,” he said.
He liked it enough that he got an actual pit bull this summer. But then he ran into a situation he couldn’t dribble out of against an opponent he couldn’t wear down with his tenacity.
His landlord said no pit bulls allowed. So Simpson is on the court in Ann Arbor and the dog is on the sidelines in Lima with an aunt.
Lima, of course, is where Simpson got his start. He grew up in Lima. He won a state championship with Lima Central Catholic as a sophomore in 2014, then transferred to Lima Senior to play for his dad, Quincey Simpson, and almost won another state championship as a senior when the Spartans went unbeaten until a two-point loss to Westerville South in the state title game.
He was Ohio’s Mr. Basketball in 2016 and first team All-Ohio in 2015.
After backing up Derrick Walton as a freshman at Michigan, he began his sophomore season as Michigan’s starting point guard, lost his starting spot four games into the season, then got it back after 12 games of coming off the bench.
He and Michigan were both better when he returned. By March the Wolverines were a team nobody wanted to play and Simpson was a point guard people didn’t want to go against.
He played defense. He did things people said he couldn’t do, like hit threes and take the ball to the basket. He led. And he spoke up sometimes when most players wouldn’t have.
After finishing tied for fourth in the Big Ten in the regular season, Michigan won the Big Ten tournament and got a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament. It got all the way to the national championship before losing 79-62 to Villanova.
Those two teams will play tonight in Philadelphia in a rematch of the championship game.
At Michigan’s basketball media day last month, Simpson said he hadn’t watched a tape of the national championship game. “I’m not a fan of watching that game,” he said.
But his reaction when asked if that loss motivated him left no doubt it still stung.
“Definitely,” he said. “How would you feel if you lost the national championship? Wouldn’t that motivate you?”
It’s not like Simpson needs extra motivation. Beilein describes him as “super competitive and stubborn.”
Assistant coach DeAndre Haynes, who works with Michigan’s guards, stood on the floor at Michigan’s Crisler Arena at media day and said Simpson “lets you know what it is when you step on this floor.”
He smiled as described Simpson introducing freshman point guard David DeJulius to college basketball.
“I feel sorry sometimes for people who have to go against X. He’s a tough guard. I think Dave went like a month without scoring (against Simpson). I don’t care who you are. When you come into this building he’s going to let you know from Day 1.
“I don’t care if Coach B would get out here right now he’s doing to D him up and take the ball from him,” he said.
Getting Beilein to give him the ball was a process that had a few bumps in the road for Simpson.
“Now it’s like we’re right on the same page,” Beilein said. “It’s just great growth by both of us. He’s supposed to grow, he was only 18 years old coming in here. I think the good coaches out there, and I hope I’m one of them, grow with their team too. I think we’re developing a really close relationship.”
Simpson said he doesn’t know exactly what Beilein meant when he said he was stubborn, but said, “I knew I was a different breed from his leaders in the past and at first he was not a fan of it. As I began to show that I could play and do certain things he became able to trust me more and put me on a longer leash,” he said.
“I’m more of an aggressor. I’m more of a vocal type leader. I’m big on accountability – holding myself accountable, holding other guys accountable.”
Haynes said, “They used to clash when X got here and now X is manned up to everything Coach B is trying to tell him and teach him. X is probably one of the best leaders I’ve been around. He holds all these guys accountable. Coach B doesn’t have to say anything. X is like, ‘I’ve got it,’ and everybody is ready to go.”
Simpson averaged 7.3 points and 3.7 assists a game last season. He shot 46 percent on field goals and struggled at the free throw line, hitting only 51.6 percent. He shot 28 percent on 3-pointers and was just 4 of 23 (17 percent) on threes in the Big Ten tournament and Michigan’s NCAA games.
Obviously, shooting got a lot of attention over the summer. “I think my shot has improved a lot. I’m making more shots. It’s better. I can say that,” Simpson said.
“Sometimes you just have to make shots. My shot has come a long way. I’m just really confident in my ability to shoot the ball.”
So far this season Simpson has averaged 2.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds a game in Michigan’s wins over Norfolk State and Holy Cross.
Playing like a pit bull is something he will continue to do. Playing with his pet pit bull will require a trip to Lima. But his trips home are a good thing for another reason, too.
“It’s good because it gives me confidence. That’s where my roots are. When I come back here from Lima I’m way more confident,” Simpson said. “I’m not sure if it’s from the motivation I grab or me working in the gym with my dad. I don’t know.”