Michigan stays loose on practice day. Robin Buckson
Wichita, Kan. — Michigan doesn’t believe the hype.
In fact, the Wolverines refuse to listen to the effusive praise and lofty projections.
Since the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled on Sunday, Michigan has quickly become the chic pick in office pools across the nation and has been at the center of plenty Final Four chatter.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas and Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe both tabbed Michigan as legit contenders who will be one of the last four teams standing in San Antonio later this month.
The Wolverines even opened with 8-1 odds to win the national championship, according to online sportsbook VegasInsider.com. Those odds ranked as the fourth-best in the field, behind only Villanova (5-1), Virginia (5-1) and Duke (6-1).
But none of it has gone to Michigan’s head because it hasn’t even seeped into any topic of conversation in the locker room.
"We try not to get too tied up in it. That can be dangerous,” fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said Wednesday before the team’s open practice at Intrust Bank Arena. “I feel like we’ve been at our best when we feel like we’ve been disrespected in a way. I guess you could say it’s a little bit of a different role for us, but none of our preparation or mindset is going to change.
“It’s two-folded. You got to make sure it doesn’t get you fat, too, you know? We can’t just walk out there and expect to beat teams. We got to still play with that edge.”
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
Freshman guard Jordan Poole said while nobody has gone dark on social media and has completely shut off the outside world, everyone on the team easily blocks that type of talk out without getting too engaged in it.
Instead, the Wolverines just continue to focus on themselves and go about their business like they have all season — which isn’t hard to do since they were seemingly an afterthought who didn’t receive any recognition much of the year.
“We stay in a box,” sophomore guard Zavier Simpson said. “We don’t worry about what other people say about us. At the end of the day, you can’t make everybody happy. Everyone is going to have something negative, something positive to say.
“We just want to ignore all that and stay together. We know what we can accomplish and that’s what’s important.”
The fact that outsiders are starting to see Michigan as the talented team it views itself as, however, at least strengthens the faith that it’s capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, starting with Thursday night’s first-round game against No. 14 seed Montana.
“I think it’s always good to hear positive affirmation and that’s all it is,” senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “Seeing people that believe in you just as much as we believe in ourselves is always good. It makes you feel a little bit better and it’s a confidence booster.”
While seeing most brackets having Michigan advancing to the round of 32 isn’t a welcome sight for Montana, it just adds to its desire to play spoiler and pull off a stunning upset as the underdog who will be far from intimidated.
“We put a little bit of pressure on ourselves because we want to compete and we expect to compete, but at the same time, realistically, nobody thinks we’ll win so a lot of the pressure is on them,” Montana redshirt junior forward Jamar Akoh said. “I don’t know what they think of us. If they think we’re good team or whatever, but I would think the pressure would be on them because they don’t want to lose this game.
“We just know that they have to have like — not fear but have to have that urgency, especially because we feel we’re a good team.”
And while Michigan certainly won’t be taking Montana lightly, all the Final Four hype just shows how far the Wolverines have come this season — and how far many think they can still go.
“Coach (John Beilein) kept telling us all year, ‘Nobody is talking about you, nobody is talking about you.’ So, that made us more hungry to keep going and keep working,” grad transfer Jaaron Simmons said. “From the beginning of the season, we set a goal out to be champions and to make it far in this tournament. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Michigan vs. Montana
Tip-off: 9:50 p.m., Thursday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.
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.