Des Moines, Iowa — Montana associate head coach Chris Cobb called it the great unknown.
How big someone is. How quick someone is. How physical someone is. No matter how much film and scouting are done, they’re all concepts a team can’t truly understand until they experience it in person.
When the Grizzlies braced to face Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the one factor they couldn’t prepare for — no matter how hard they tried — was the Wolverines’ defensive intensity.
“Last year we didn't play a team that was that good defensively, as good as they were,” Cobb said Wednesday. “You go through playing a Big Sky schedule where teams are good, but they're nothing near that. It's really hard to replicate (the intensity). You can't replicate it.”
Even though Montana jumped out to a 10-0 lead in that meeting, Michigan’s aggressiveness never wavered in the 61-47 win. From the moment the ball tipped off to the moment the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines didn’t give in and it caught the Grizzlies off-guard as the game wore on.
“I thought that was the biggest thing last year was just how physical they were on defense, because when you look at them they're not physically imposing, which I think is a little different than what you're used to when you play these mid-major games to high major,” Cobb said. “They're not incredible athletes. They aren't bigger, but they’re not like what you typically would see.
“I think they get every ounce out of their guys. They play incredibly hard. I don't think I played a team that plays as hard as they did on the defensive end consistently. You'll see teams come out and play hard for five minutes or have stretches where they'll really do it, but they didn't relent.”
Yet, having familiarity with Michigan’s personnel doesn't make it any easier for Montana to get ready for Thursday’s first-round rematch at the Wells Fargo Center.
While Montana returned the bulk of its roster, Michigan replaced several key pieces and tweaked some of its offensive actions, with freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis providing a different element as a one-on-one threat.
But that defensive ferocity? It hasn’t left the Wolverines and it won’t come as a complete surprise to the Grizzlies this time around.
Montana wing Bobby Moorehead said the one thing he remembered the most from last year’s matchup was the physicality and how the game was called. He noted referees in the Big Sky would blow the whistle on most occasions if you touch a player. But in the Big Dance, he said officials let the teams play more and would let hand checks and body contact slide.
Moorehead is expecting more of the same in the second meeting, where points could be hard to come by against a Michigan defense that’s better in nearly every statistical category and is one of the most unrelenting units in the nation.
“It's not easy for a scout team to simulate that — trying to make buckets harder to get like they might be in practice is nearly impossible,” Moorehead said. “It's difficult. I think we have rules on defense that can apply to any team, so I think defensively we should be OK. It's just getting shots on offense because most teams in the country struggle to get shots against them. It's difficult to prepare for them, but you do what you can with three days then you get after it."
On top of that, Montana guard Michael Oguine said Michigan’s combination of size and athleticism adds another element that's hard to match.
With star forward Jamar Akoh sidelined since Feb. 7 with a knee injury, the Grizzlies have used a small-ball lineup deploying three guards under 6-foot-3, doesn’t include a traditional big man and has 6-7 Moorehead at the five.
The Wolverines, on the other hand, start three perimeter players who are at least 6-5, have 7-1 junior center Jon Teske manning the middle, and play as a connected unit on both ends.
"We stick to what we do, but we know that when we're playing against the scout defense it's not going to be that easy, so we challenge ourselves to get a better look,” Oguine said. “Maybe passing up a look that we got early in the shot clock because we know that that might not be there (against Michigan). We just know that we're going to have grind some possessions.”
It's an unenviable position to be in — and a familiar one for Montana that's just as challenging as it was a year ago.
"Our scout guys do a good job of doing their best, but it's nothing like the real thing,” Oguine said. “Just sticking to things you can control in practice, making sure your offense is as crisp as possible is really all you can do when preparing against a team like this.”