More of Montana: Wolverines wary of rare first-round rematch
Des Moines, Iowa — Consider it déjà vu for the maize and blue.
Michigan was one of the last teams to be announced on Selection Sunday. Again. The Wolverines ended up in the West Region. Again.
And in a rare oddity, Michigan will face Montana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a Midwestern city for the second straight year.
“It’s Montana again,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of Thursday night's game. “They have got a terrific program to go and win all these games, win the (Big Sky) championship. Anybody that's playing in the conferences that they play in, and you win a championship, you're playing usually more road games than home, overall.
"You've got to be a heck of a team, and they were last year.”
Michigan won last year’s meeting, 61-47, behind 20 points and 11 rebounds from Charles Matthews. It was the first of five victories for the Wolverines before they fell in the national-championship game to Villanova.
Yet neither team will need any introductions or to be reminded how the Grizzlies opened the game before the Wolverines awoke from their slumber.
“They got on us 10-0 last year for a team that went to the Final Four,” Beilein said. “That was the only team until we got to — for the rest of the tournament, nobody took us out 10-0 to start a game. So, they have a really good team. We're going to have to be really sharp. We're going to have to play. I enjoyed winning last year against them. I did not enjoy playing against them.”
The feeling is mutual for the Grizzlies. After winning the Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles for the second straight year, they didn’t expect to see the same opponent in back-to-back tournaments.
"I thought we played well against them early last year, we just fell apart in the second half,” Montana senior guard Bobby Moorehead said. “That's encouraging. I know they have a lot of the same guys back, we have a lot of the same guys back, so I'm excited. I think it will be a good matchup."
According to Beilein, facing Montana again doesn’t make game prep any easier because only junior guard Zavier Simpson, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers and Matthews played a healthy share of minutes in last year’s meeting.
On top of that, the Grizzlies aren’t playing the same style they did in the first encounter. Last season, Montana threw the ball in the post a lot and operated through their big men. This season, the Grizzlies are more perimeter-oriented and rank No. 30 in the nation in 3-point shooting (38 percent) one year after ranking No. 236 (33.9 percent) in the same category.
A pair of deadeye Pac-12 transfers — Donaven Dorsey (Washington) and Kendal Manuel (Oregon State) — and a small-ball lineup following star forward Jamar Akoh's knee injury helped spur that shift.
“They were not a great 3-point shooting team last year. This year they are,” Beilein said. “The injury to their big kid (Akoh) caused them to now play differently, so now they're playing with the Isaiah Livers type of five man that can do so much and that's a problem. It's a problem for everyone.
“They spread you out and they're making 3s. The game changes a lot with the 3-point shot obviously. We're going to have to guard our yard. They're going to attack us off the dribble. (Michael Oguine) goes to the foul line like crazy and so does (Ahmaad Rorie). They're good. They're going to be a real challenge for us.”
And even though the seeding is slightly different this time around, the Wolverines are well aware of what the Grizzlies are capable of and won't be looking past a Montana team that's better and more experienced than a year ago.
"That whole game, being down 10-0 and then just fighting back to get a 3-point lead, I'm looking at Muhammad (-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) on the bench, I'm looking at Zavier on the bench, Moe (Wagner) on the bench," Beilein said. "We made it through there. In the second half we just got ahead by enough and we could hold them off.
"Many, many times they're all tough games, but you just don't know what you're going to expect. You didn't expect that. ... It's going to be a tough fight."
NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 15 MONTANA
Tip-off: 9:20 p.m. Thursday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Michigan 28-6; Montana 26-8
Next up: Winner faces No. 7 Nevada or No. 10 Florida