Michigan head coach John Beilein has often said a team can play itself into a tough match-up by getting a better tournament seed. That might be the case with Montana.
The Grizzlies finished with 26 wins, and they had to come back to beat Northern Colorado in overtime in the Big Sky Conference semifinals. Beilein, though, knows a good team when he sees one.
“This is as solid of a team as there is anywhere,” Beilein said. “They're only playing seven people, but I'm telling you, those seven are fitting the pieces perfectly. I’m really impressed.
“They remind me … we had two great teams that made the NCAA from Canisius and Richmond. I think Richmond actually was a 14 seed, and we upset South Carolina who was a three seed, and they really have outstanding guards. They have just the right pieces up front, a mix of inside, outside. The style is terrific, and they really guard you.”
They pride themselves on forcing turnovers. Michigan, of course, protects the ball extremely well, second best in the country with only nine turnovers per game.
“They create turnovers, which is something that is always concerning to a coach,” Beilein said. “We're really good at not turning the ball over. They're really good at creating them, so that's going to be a big battle to watch tomorrow.”
The Grizzlies don’t have a player who has seen NCAA Tournament action. Michigan has a few, including veterans Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson.
But Montana plays hard and has an outstanding backcourt. Beilein predicted there would be no nerves on the other bench.
“The NCAA Tournament is certainly special, but I don't think these kids have to get ready for it now. They're already ready,” he said. “They're seasoned, and by playing at such high-leverage situations like they were. I mean, it's not like they were going to get at-large bid, right? They might have deserved one. But they're not getting at-large bid.
“They played some pressure games. They're ready, and [like us], we went in there really to win four in a row. You’ve got have special kids, and they did that.”
It will be a unique experience for the Grizzlies, Beilein said, and one he’s familiar with having coached in the tournament at both Canisius and Richmond.
“Montana's got a great tradition of being one of the tops in the Big Sky,” Beilein said. “And [former Montana coach] Wayne Tinkle is a friend of mine. He texted me right away as soon as he saw the draw and said, ‘take it easy on the Griz.’ I said, ‘I don't think we have to worry about that. They're a very good team.’”
Michigan and the other Big Ten teams have had several days off due to the early conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. Beilein said he’s anxious to see how his team responds.
“That's probably been the most asked question, and rightfully so, because I think most of the power conferences, you're used to some rhythm here,” he said. “But I think back, Wichita State's been doing it for years when they were in the Missouri Valley and Gonzaga has been doing it out in the West Coast conference.
“We took three days off in a week, but never three in a row. We went back and worked on some things we really wanted to work at. We tried to play a scrimmage on Friday that simulated a game. I'll be interested to see how we do, but it will not become an excuse no matter what the results are.”
He’s been through it before at both Richmond and Canisius.
“In fact, a couple of times at Canisius and Richmond we were in the NIT, as well, so it's happened five or six times,” he said. “You just go through it, but I've always looked at it as this is a great time for us to get healthy, and it's a great time for us to work with our guys, especially the young ones. It's almost like you have the practice before a bowl game in football. It's great time to develop your team.
“So we were able to do some things with some of our younger guys in 20 hours a week that worked pretty well. We watched some film, but also really got rest for some of these young men.”
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