For the third straight year and eighth time under coach John Beilein, the Michigan Wolverines have made the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 3 seed in the West Region, Michigan (28-7) will play Thursday night at 9:50 p.m. against No. 14 seed Montana (26-7) in Wichita, Kan.
The Grizzlies were the Big Sky tournament and regular season champions to earn their bid to the big dance. They are ranked No. 71 by KenPom.com and are No. 76 in RPI — highest of all the 14 seeds in this year’s tournament.
Michigan and Montana shared just two common opponents in the regular season: Penn State and UC Riverside. The Wolverines beat both teams, topping Penn State 72-63 and UC Riverside 87-42, while Montana fell 70-57 to the Nittany Lions, but beat UC Riverside 77-61.
Montana played four Power Five schools during non-conference play and went 1-3. It beat Pittsburgh and lost to Stanford, Washington and the aforementioned Penn State. All four games were on the road, and despite the final scores, were very much in each game according to Montana beat writer Frank Gogola, who covers the basketball team for the Missoulian.
The Grizzlies play an attacking style defense, centered around putting pressure on players on the perimeter and trapping on ball screens. When a screen is made, a guard and post player will double-team the ball carrier. Montana coach Travis DeCuire, who is in his fourth year with the team, changed the team’s defensive strategy at the end of last season after feeling his team was playing too soft defensively.
The change has worked, and is focused on forcing turnovers — something that will be difficult to do against Michigan, which is No. 2 in the country in taking care of the ball, averaging 9.1 turnovers per game. Montana forces 15.45 turnovers per game, good for No. 21 in the nation.
The Wolverines force 12.86 turnovers per game, which is 181st in the country, while Montana turns the ball over 12.4 times per game, which is 127th in the nation.
“They’re really ruthless defenders I’d say with trying to force turnovers,” Gogola said.
If Montana is unable to force turnovers, it could spell trouble for the Grizzlies — so could not being able to rebound well. Michigan has a significant size advantage over the Grizzlies and they have not faced anyone like junior forward Moritz “Moe” Wagner or sophomore center Jon Teske on the inside.
“They’ve relied a good amount on getting second chance opportunities to score, getting offensive rebounds,” Gogola said.
Michigan was best in the Big Ten this year in defensive rebounding percentage and 17th in the country at 78.4 percent, and should be a huge advantage for the Wolverines in this game.
While they don’t have the height, Montana does have a couple quality inside players that are athletic enough to guard Wagner and others, like fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, on the perimeter. Redshirt junior forward Jamar Akoh and senior forward Fabijan Krslovic both are 6-foot-8 and start down low. Akoh is a transfer from Cal State Fullerton and averages 13.1 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per contest.
“[Akoh has] really helped their resurgence with down low play, because the Big Sky is really all about guards,” Gogola said. “There aren’t really any physical posts like him, so he’s been able to dominate this first year.”
They’re joined in the starting lineup by redshirt junior guard Ahmaad Rorie, junior guard Michael Oguine and junior guard Bobby Morehead. Montana is one of two teams in the entire country that has had the same starting lineup for the entire season. The Grizzlies use an eight-man rotation.
Rorie is the team’s leader. He was originally committed to Cal, but flipped to Oregon after DeCuire, who was an assistant at Cal was let go. He then transferred to Montana to play for DeCuire. He played nearly 20 minutes a game as a freshman with the Ducks, and has led Montana in scoring the past two seasons, averaging more than 17 points a game in both seasons.
“He’s taken on a bigger leadership role this year,” Gogola said. “He could be a guy who averages 25 points a night if he wanted to, but the team has taken on this team-first approach and spreads the ball around.”
Rorie also leads the team in assists, tallying 3.7 per game.
Oguine was the Big Sky defensive player of the year and also is a scoring threat, averaging 15.8 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per contest.
“I’ve talked to several other Big Sky coaches who compared Oguine and Rorie to a high major backcourt playing at the mid-major level,” Gogola said.
One area that Michigan will look to exploit is Montana’s poor three-point defense. The Grizzlies are No. 247 in the country in three-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to make 35.9 percent of their attempts.
Michigan shot 36.9 percent from three and made 320 triples this season, the second most in the Big Ten.
Gogola doesn’t see the upset happening, but it is March, and anything is possible.
“I wouldn’t count them out, but I think it’s a very slim percentage,” Gogola said. “I could see it being with two or three possessions at the last media timeout and it will just depend how they come out after that.”
Montana is known as a second half team, as evidenced by coming back from 11 down at the half in the Big Sky championship game to beat Eastern Washington by 17. However, if it falls behind by a lot early, it could mean doom for the Grizzlies this time around.
“If they fall down big early and play poorly, they might be down too much to be able to come back,” Gogola said. “I think how well they start could determine what we’re looking at down the stretch.”
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