James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game between Michigan and Montana (9:20 p.m.; TNT/950).
While junior guard Zavier Simpson has his limitations as a spotty shooter, he has been getting it done on both ends for Michigan so far this postseason. In three games in three days at the Big Ten tournament, he held Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston to a combined 19 points on 30.4 percent (7-for-23) shooting all while racking up 31 points and 30 assists. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole, on the other hand, has unlimited range and is a talented scorer with 15 games with at least 15 points, but has been susceptible to rough defensive outings against more experienced players (i.e. Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid).
Senior guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine have that experience on their side as four-year starters on a veteran Montana squad. Rorie, an All-Big Sky first team selection, and Oguine are scrappy and were the only two Grizzlies who fared well in last year’s meeting with a combined 30 points and 14 rebounds.
With fifth-year senior forward Jamar Akoh out since Feb. 7 with a knee injury and doubtful to return Thursday, Montana has gone to a small lineup with 6-foot-2 guard Timmy Falls, 6-5 guard Sayeed Pridgett and 6-7 wing Bobby Moorehead. All three can hit outside shots, with Pridgett serving as the team's high-percentage shooter (62.4 percent on 2s, 47.4 percent on 3s). But the lack of size and possible absence of Akoh, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, will be tough to overcome against Michigan. Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews should be able to impose their physical will on both ends, while Jon Teske should be able to command the paint and have his way around the rim.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers has picked up his play in recent weeks and is averaging 11.7 points (48.3 percent on 3s) over the last six games. With Matthews back from injury and Montana playing small, Livers’ versatility is vital and gives Michigan the option to mix and match at the five whenever it wants. Sophomore guard Eli Brooks has provided some solid minutes at times and freshman center Colin Castleton has shown he can adequately spell Teske for brief stretches.
Montana primarily relies on two upperclassmen reserves who can pack a long-range punch: Kendal Manuel and Donaven Dorsey, a pair of sharpshooters who have each hit six 3s in a game and are shooting at least 43.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Michigan is missing several key pieces from last year’s team while Montana returns the bulk of its squad in the first-round rematch. The Grizzlies have plenty of experience — ranking No. 6 nationally, per KenPom — played the nation’s 43rd-toughest nonconference schedule and rank No. 30 in 3-point shooting at 38 percent. But none of it will be enough to prepare Montana for Michigan’s staunch defense, which is is even better than a year ago and among the nation’s best at taking away the 3. Michigan 68, Montana 53