Ann Arbor — It was never a matter of if Michigan would make the NCAA Tournament. It was a matter of when and where the Wolverines would go.
The weeks of brewing destination speculation finally came to an end on Sunday when the bracket was unveiled and revealed Michigan, one of the nation’s hottest teams, will ride its nine-game win streak to Wichita, Kan.
The Wolverines (28-7) are the No. 3 seed in the West Region and will open play at 9:50 p.m. Thursday against 14th-seeded Montana (26-7).
Even though Michigan was already an automatic qualifier after winning the Big Ten tournament in New York over a week ago, it still didn’t wash away the anxiousness that filled the Junge Family Champions Center during the team’s watch party.
“I was sweating,” junior center Moritz Wagner said. “You're sweating because you're waiting until the last minute and then they call your name. That's so mean even though you know you're in it, you're sweating and get emotional to see all these teams get called.
“I was like, 'Is there an extra rule?' We (were one of the) last to get your name called. Is there anything I missed? It's pretty cool. It's going to be exciting. I'm very proud of this team. The 3 seed is something special.”
The No. 3 seed is the second-highest during Michigan coach John Beilein’s tenure. The Wolverines, who will be making their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and seventh in eight seasons, were a No. 2 seed in 2014 when they reached the Elite Eight.
Beilein said he was “flattered” with the seed but was more pleased with the fact Michigan gets to open on Thursday instead of Friday since the Wolverines haven’t played since the Big Ten tournament final on March 4.
However, Beilein and the players are wary that such a high seed comes with a target on their back and will be hunted by the lower-seeded teams in the first two rounds.
“I think all of us are competitive enough to understand that we're still going to be the hunters and because if you're not, it's over like that and you go back to Ann Arbor with nothing in your hands,” Wagner said. “We don't want that to happen.”
While senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman admitted he has a friend back home who tweets stuff about Montana on occasion and Wagner only knows the team’s nickname — the Grizzlies — Beilein is well aware of the danger Nos. 12, 13 and 14 seeds pose in the NCAA Tournament.
Back in 1998, Beilein led No. 14 Richmond to an upset over No. 3 South Carolina in the first round.
“I've been there,” Beilein said. “If you're playing at Montana and we ever went there and played them and could get a win, it'd probably be a great Quadrant 1 win probably.
“They're good teams and they usually have all juniors and seniors, I'd be surprised if they don't ... They're always dangerous because they don't lose guys like we do to the pros or to transfers.”
As the selection show unfolded, it appeared Michigan had a chance at staying close to home and opening at Little Caesars Arena. But that went out the window when rival Michigan State landed the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region.
Wagner said he wanted Detroit because it would’ve been easier for the fans and Abdur-Rahkman wished the team could’ve been a little closer to the state, but the two still couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity and road ahead.
"I'm happy to play more than anything. It is what it is,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “If we do what we're supposed to do and play the way we're supposed to, we can possibly play in L.A. (in the regional round) and that's pretty much the best of the best places you can go.
“It's always in the back of your mind that you got to earn it. It's a good goal to try and achieve and make it to play there (in Los Angeles). I think if we stay focused on Montana and the next team we can be in good shape.”
But more importantly for Michigan, there’s finally an opponent to prepare for and an end goal in sight at the end of the week.
“You start tomorrow right away and get it going,” Wagner said. “That's big time for me. I just want to play. We're hoopers. We want to play. We haven't played in a week, so it's time now to get it rolling.”
Michigan vs. Montana
Tip-off: 9:50 p.m., Thursday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 28-7, No. 14 seed Montana is 26-7
Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 6 Houston and No. 11 San Diego State on Saturday.
ALL ABOUT MONTANA
Conference: Big Sky
Record: 26-7, 16-2
Coach: Travis DeCuire (fourth season)
How they got in: Automatic bid by winning Big Sky tournament
Five Montana facts
■ Montana hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2006 and is 2-11 in 10 tournament appearances.
■ The Grizzlies rank No. 65 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) at 99.3 points and No. 82 in adjusted offensive efficiency at 110.1 points.
■ Montana has three players averaging double figures in scoring: junior guard Ahmaad Rorie (17.2 points), junior guard Michael Oguine (15.8) and junior forward Jamar Akoh (13.1)
■ The Grizzlies have lost their last two NCAA Tournament games by a combined 71 points. They lost 73-49 to Wisconsin in 2012 and 81-34 to Syracuse in 2013.
■ Montana’s season low for points scored is 54 and season high is 109. The Grizzlies have scored at least 80 points in 15 games, all wins.