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Detroit News writers James Hawkins and John Niyo preview the Michigan-Montana game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Robin Buckson, Detroit News

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James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game between Michigan and Montana (9:50 p.m., TBS/950).

Backcourt

Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson has been playing his most consistent basketball as of late with five straight double-digit scoring performances and was arguably Michigan’s best player in the Big Ten tournament, where he seemingly took his disruptive defense to another level. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman continues to be as reliable as they come and has developed a knack for helping the Wolverines close out games. Junior guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine are the heartbeat and set the tone on both ends for Montana. Rorie, an All-Big Sky first team selection, and Oguine, the Big Sky defensive player of the year, can create in the lane and have combined to score 125 points over the past three games, but they haven’t been tested in the NCAA Tournament like Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman. Edge: Michigan

Frontcourt

Montana has used the same starting lineup all season with redshirt junior forward Jamar Akoh and senior forward Fabijan Krslovic manning the interior, where the Grizzlies do most of their damage. Akoh and Krslovic are both shooting at least 57 percent from the field, but they haven’t had to defend a four-five combo like Michigan’s Moritz Wagner and Isaiah Livers. The duo’s ability to knock down 3-pointers and stretch the floor will likely take Akoh and Krslovic out of their comfort zone. Montana junior wing Bobby Moorehead isn’t a consistent scoring threat and has tallied at least 10 points just twice in the last 11 games, while Michigan redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews averaged 10 points in four conference tournament contests. Edge: Michigan

Bench

Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson has been the X-factor for Michigan and didn’t win the Big Ten sixth man of the year for nothing. He and freshman guard Jordan Poole are capable of catching fire from 3-point range, but will have their work cut out for them against Montana, whose defense ranks in the top 30 nationally in fewest 3-pointers made (204; 28th) and allowed (568; 14th). Sophomore guard Sayeed Pridgett headlines Montana’s reserve unit and can make an instant impact as evidenced by his 44 points over the last four games. Michigan, though, has more depth, can go nine deep and has three players capable of changing the game in sophomore center Jon Teske, Robinson and Poole. Edge: Michigan

Prediction

The swirling question is how is Michigan going to come out after having a 10-day layoff? It’s a legitimate concern, but even if the Wolverines have a tough time finding their offense, they should be able to lean on their defense while they get it sorted out. Montana, who has won six straight and 19 of 21, thrives on crashing the offensive glass (11.9 per game) and getting steals (7.8 per game), but Michigan excels at defensive rebounding, ranks among the nation’s best in taking care of the ball and rarely beats itself. Michigan 74, Montana 64

WEST REGION

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.

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Michigan stays loose on practice day. Robin Buckson

ALL ABOUT MONTANA

Nickname: Grizzlies

Conference: Big Sky

Record: 26-7, 16-2

Coach: Travis DeCuire (fourth season)

RPI: 76

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: redshirt junior guard Ahmaad Rorie (17.2 points), junior guard Michael Oguine (15.8) and redshirt 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.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jamesbhawkins

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