'We'll be a tough out': Michigan gets No. 2 seed in West, opens vs. Montana
Chicago — Making deep postseason runs is becoming a common practice for Michigan.
For the third straight year, the Wolverines reached the Big Ten tournament final. Now, they’ll look to follow suit once again in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan (28-6) will enter the Big Dance as the No. 2 seed in the West Region and will open play at approximately 9:20 p.m. Thursday against No. 15 seed Montana in Des Moines, Iowa.
It’ll mark the second straight year the Wolverines will face the Grizzlies in a first-round game with one exception: Michigan won’t be riding a wave of momentum after winning the conference tournament.
Instead, Michigan will be looking to regroup after falling short of another Big Ten tournament title and suffering a heartbreaking 65-60 loss Sunday to Michigan State at the United Center.
"This is life right now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Your journey is going to be incredible. You'll have great days and you'll have bad days. You'll have children that excite you one minute and frustrate you the next. You'll have job opportunities that are great, and you'll have job opportunities that don't work out. It's life and that's how we do it. We just move on."
Despite the setback, Beilein is confident his team will respond and learn from the loss like it has all season, especially after Sunday stressed how critical it is to maximize and not waste possessions in a down-to-the-wire game.
More importantly, Beilein believes his team will be leaving Chicago a better version of itself than when it came into town. And there are certainly several positives, from dismantling a pair of NCAA Tournament teams in Iowa and Minnesota on back-to-back nights to junior guard Zavier Simpson's and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers' rising level of play.
“We’ve got a great confidence back,” Beilein said. “We’ve got Charles (Matthews) back in there a little bit. He's certainly not himself right now but we did get him back in there and what we've seen is Isaiah Livers making big plays. There's no question we had a lot of teams switching on us. Now we've got a better plan for that if we see that going forward. It didn't always work for us, but we're definitely better than we were.”
Michigan has been ranked in the top 10 the past 17 weeks, including four weeks at No. 2, and have seven wins over ranked opponents this season. The Wolverines are also 4-1 at neutral sites this year and 24-4 over the past three years.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said having that target on their back and being most teams’ biggest game will be a huge benefit moving into the survive-and-advance portion of the season.
But the biggest key will come down to playing with poise for a full 40 minutes.
"I definitely feel like we'll be prepared for the tournament,” Brazdeikis said. “I feel like we've been through it all this season. We've just got to stay composed at all times and just give it our all every second.”
And getting away from the Big Ten grind where everyone knows the scouting report and what everyone does well certainly won’t hurt either.
Awaiting Michigan, if it wins, in the second round Saturday will be No. 7 seed Nevada or No. 10 seed Florida. The No. 1 seed in the West is Gonzaga, with Texas Tech and Florida State rounding out the top four seeds.
“Our offense is hard to guard, especially if you haven't seen it before,” junior center Jon Teske said. “It's hard to scout us. There are so many different things. Our defense is tough. We can really score with anybody outside the Big Ten, I think, and we'll be a tough out.
"We're right there and we can play with anybody in the country.”
The No. 2 seed also ties the highest seeding Michigan has earned during coach Beilein’s tenure. The Wolverines, who will be making their fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and eighth in nine seasons, were a No. 2 seed in 2014 when they reached the Elite Eight.
In order for Michigan to get to that point again, it'll start with the Wolverines getting past the sting of yet another crushing defeat and another missed opportunity to take home a Big Ten title.
"This loss hurts, but you've got to forget about it now because it's March Madness time," Matthews said. "We're trying to go on a run in this tournament and trying to be national champions.
"We've got to keep moving forward."
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Montana
When: Thursday, 9:20 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
TV/radio: TNT/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 28-6, Montana 26-8
Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 7 Nevada and No. 10 Florida