Des Moines, Iowa — As Michigan enters the NCAA Tournament, it finds itself in a different position than the past two years.
The Wolverines aren’t riding the wave of momentum and good vibes that come with a winning streak and a Big Ten tournament title.
Instead, they stumbled in three of their final seven regular-season games and fell to rival Michigan State for the third time in three weeks in the conference tournament championship last weekend in Chicago.
It was crushing finish that cut deep and left a bitter taste in Michigan’s mouth — a taste so bad the Wolverines even had to remind themselves of everything they have done to get to this point.
“It's crazy how you think about that. We lost six games and it felt like all hell broke loose,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said. “We won 28 games. Welcome to college basketball. You've got to definitely remind yourself that you won 17 in row, you won 28 games. Just think about that. You won 28 games and you lost six and it feels like the world is about to fall and it's about to end.”
Poole said it took all of a day for the feeling to go away when No. 2 seed Michigan went back to work and began preparing for Thursday’s first-round rematch against No. 15 seed Montana at Wells Fargo Arena.
And despite not being on a roll heading into the do-or-die time of the year, Sunday’s setback hasn’t done anything to diminish the Wolverines’ belief in themselves and won’t define what they can accomplish.
"I feel like this team does a really good job of not losing confidence,” Poole said. “Obviously you don't want to lose games, but we don't dwell on it. You wake up the next day and you're blessed to be in this situation playing college basketball.
“If you lose, you lose. Coach B (John Beilein) said if this is the worst thing that happens in your life then you've lived a good life. It happens. This is what we signed up for. Our confidence is back to where it was.”
But Poole added that doesn’t mean Michigan’s confidence has ever gone missing.
“We were just losing games,” he said. “Win games and it seems like everything is exciting. You lose a game obviously you're down for a little bit because you lost but you’ve got to pick it back up. It can really affect you if you dwell on it too much and lose games in a row. After this if our mindset was bad after that loss (to Michigan State), it could really affect us coming in. But everybody is in a good mindset. Everybody is excited to be here and excited to be in this situation.”
Assistant coach Luke Yaklich said getting the team regrouped and refocused from the sting of Sunday took a little bit of time. But the expectation is the same after every loss: it’ll make the Wolverines stronger, better and help them in their pursuit of a national title.
“There's some disappointment there obviously dealing with the loss and that type of game,” Yaklich said. “That's human nature and a part of sports, but our kids are resilient and we're ready to go.
“We're beyond that. We flushed that out and we're ready and focused entirely on Montana.”
Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews made his return from a right ankle sprain in the Big Ten tournament and averaged five points in 23 minutes over three games.
Matthews reiterated he’s still not 100 percent but he’s “good enough to play.” And after being sidelined for 18 days with the injury, he added he “feels fine” from a conditioning standpoint and would be able to log his usual 30-plus minutes if needed.
“That's up to coach and what he feels at the time,” Matthews said. “If he feels that the flow of the game is helping me out there and he's liking how I'm performing out there, I'm pretty sure he'll keep me out there. If not, if they're still concerned, they might still keep me on a lower minutes. I'm fine with either-or.
"I just want to make the most of every minute I get."
Beilein noted Matthews looked gassed in his first few games back and how well sophomore forward Isaiah Livers has been playing could impact Matthews’ minute.
“We've just got to continue to try to get this thing together, so we can try to get the five best players on the floor at one time,” Beilein said.
Home of the 3
Montana has made at least eight 3-pointers in 22 games and is shooting 38 percent from deep on the season. The Grizzlies know those marks will be tough to reach against Michigan, who has surrendered the second-fewest made 3-pointers (160) and third-fewest 3-point attempts (554) in the nation.
"They really do a good job of helping each other out,” Montana guard Michael Oguine said. “They play great team defense. They close the shooters hard. They don't make anything easy, especially on dribble-drives.
"They try to eliminate those so it's hard to get the drive and kicks.”
Montana shot 3-for-15 from 3-point range in last year’s meeting and wing Bobby Moorehead said having a better feel for how the Wolverines defend will help the Grizzlies in Thursday's rematch.
“I think a lot of people take the first shot they see against them,” Moorehead said. “They feel like they're kind of open and that's why they shoot. Our shot discipline is going to be really important. We've got to be ready to not just take the first shot that we feel is good. We've got to use our offense and get the best shot possible for us."