Alter grad Simmons: ‘Unbelievable experience’ to reach Final Four

Michigan’s Jaaron Simmons, right, is defended by Montana’s Timmy Falls during the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 15, 2018 in Wichita, Kansas. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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Michigan’s Jaaron Simmons, right, is defended by Montana’s Timmy Falls during the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 15, 2018 in Wichita, Kansas. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Alter grad not playing big minutes but stepped up in first round

Jaaron Simmons has scored 1,146 points and played in 129 college basketball games for three programs — and his biggest moments are still ahead.

The Alter High School grad Simmons, who started his career at Houston and then played two seasons at Ohio, transferred to Michigan in part because he knew he would have a better chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Now he’s headed to San Antonio, Texas, to play the final game — or games — of his college career in the Final Four.

“It’s been fun. It’s been a blessing,” Simmons said Monday. “To get to the tournament for one. To get to the Final Four has been an unbelievable experience.”

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Simmons cut down the net after Michigan beat Florida State 58-54 on Saturday in the Elite Eight. He got to do the same March 5 when Michigan beat Purdue 75-66 to win the Big Ten championship. On Twitter, he posted a photo of himself at the top of the ladder after that game and referenced the fact that he hadn’t cut down a net since he was a senior at Alter in 2013. The Knights won a regional championship that year to reach the state semifinals for the first time since 2003.

Simmons was part of winning teams in Houston (17-16 in 2013-14) and Ohio (23-12 and 20-11 the last two seasons) in his first three seasons on the court, but he has experienced a new level of success with the Wolverines.

“Cutting down the net is always a good feeling,” Simmons said. “To be able to do it my senior year is so great.”

No. 3 seed Michigan (32-7) plays No. 11 seed Loyola (32-5) at 6:09 p.m. Saturday in the first national semifinal. Simmons’ parents, Aaron and Sarita, and younger brother, Camaaron, will be there.

“They’ve been to a lot of games,” Simmons said. “They’re my biggest supporters.”

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If Michigan wins, it will be an underdog in the national championship game Monday because the opponent will be a No. 1 seed: Villanova (34-4) or Kansas (31-7).

Michigan is a 5½-point favorite against Loyola, which is the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.

“We don’t look at them as a Cinderella really,” Simmons said. “We feel we’re the Cinderella. Nobody expected us to get here. We’re looking at it as another game. We’ve got to come out prepared and confident and compete at a high level.”

Simmons has averaged 1.5 points, 0.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 8.1 minutes per game. That's a big dropoff from his numbers at Ohio last season when he averaged 15.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists in 36 minutes per game.

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However, Simmons has stayed sharp in case he’s needed to play more minutes, and that happened in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Montana. Michigan’s starting point guard, sophomore Zavier Simpson, got into early foul trouble. Simmons stepped in and scored six points — one short of his season high — on 3-of-3 shooting in 11 minutes in the first half.

“We haven’t had Zavier with two fouls at all the entire season,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game, “so when he ended up getting in foul trouble, Jaaron Simmons came off the bench and was terrific. He came in and really performed well.”

Simmons said he has no regrets about leaving Ohio for Michigan, and while he had to adjust to a new system and new terminology at Michigan, it has made him more knowledgeable about the game. He’s a better person and a better player, he said, because of what he has learned in Ann Arbor.

“It’s been a great ride, a great learning experience,” Simmons said. “This year has really helped me grow.”

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Beilein praised Simmons in February for maintaining a good attitude even though he wasn’t playing as many minutes as he expected when he transferred to Michigan last spring.

"What that kid gave up to come and play for us," Beilein told MLive.com, "it hasn't worked out the way either of us dreamed but at the same time he's in there every day working his tail off."

Simmons didn’t score in the next three tournament games after the first round, playing a total of 16 minutes against Houston, his former team, Texas A&M and Florida State. He had three assists and two rebounds in the Sweet 16 against Texas A&M.

Simmons said his goal is to do what’s best for the team.

“I feel like I’m always going to be ready at all times,” he said. “I expect to be out there so when my number’s called, I’ll go out there and give it my all.”

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