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
Wichita, Kan. — Nobody has to tell Jaaron Simmons how hard it is to reach the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a dream that Simmons, a grad transfer, has been chasing during his previous stops at Houston and Ohio University, only to have it elude him at each turn.
But after five long seasons, it’s a lifelong goal he’ll finally be able to check off the list when No. 3 seed Michigan opens play with a first-round game against No. 14 seed Montana on Thursday night.
“This is the whole reason I came here,” Simmons said Wednesday before the team’s open practice at Intrust Bank Arena. “It's a blessing to be able to play in the NCAA Tournament in my last year. I mean, I don't think it's all settled in yet, but once we really prepare for our game tomorrow and step on the floor again I think it will.
“I'm taking it all in but at the same time I'm staying locked in, staying focused so I can help my team in whatever way we need to get a victory.”
Throughout much of Simmons’ college career, he didn’t bother to tune into Selection Sunday. Not because it was painful, but because it only made him more “thirsty” to get an invite to the Big Dance.
He said he watched the selection show out of sheer curiosity to see who made the field last season. And getting the chance to be on the other side of the screen during the team’s watch party last weekend was an experience he’ll never forget.
“I leaned over and told X (sophomore guard Zavier Simpson), 'I ain't going to lie to you, bro. This is kind of sweet,’” Simmons said. “My last year to be able to do something like this and see yourself — I mean, we played on TV before plenty of times. But to see yourself celebrate on TV and see where you're placed and where you're going to be seeded was a pretty cool feeling.”
However, this season hasn’t unfolded as many had hoped or envisioned for Simmons, who contemplated leaving for the NBA and was expected to be a front-runner to take over the starting point guard spot. He has received a DNP eight times and is averaging 1.5 points and 1.1 assists in 8.1 minutes in 27 games.
Still, it has been a ride that Simmons wouldn’t trade for anything.
Michigan stays loose on practice day. Robin Buckson
“He came here for a situation like this, to be able to play in the tournament and he got what he wanted,” freshman guard Jordan Poole said. “Now it's time for all of us, including Jaaron, to step up and make sure that we do everything we need to get a win.”
It appears there might be an Ann Arbor reunion with former Michigan coach Steve Fisher in the near future.
With the possibility of Michigan advancing to face San Diego State in the round of 32 on Saturday, Michigan coach John Beilein was asked whether he thinks it is time for the university to recognize Fisher’s contributions.
Fisher coached at Michigan for nine seasons and finished with a 185-81 record. He guided the Wolverines to the 1989 national championship and back-to-back title game appearances in 1992 and 1993 with the famed “Fab Five” before he was fired in 1997 as the Ed Martin booster scandal heated up.
Fisher caught on at San Diego State, where he spent 18 seasons until retiring last year.
“Steve Fisher and I have been friends long back when he was Michigan coach,” Beilein said. “He has gone out of his way over and over again to when I'm on the road, I'm traveling. The Nike trips, we have actually spent a lot of time together. Steve's a close friend, and I know that's in the plans.”
When asked to elaborate on what those plans may be, Beilein said he’d “rather keep it right there.”
“He did a fantastic job at Michigan,” Beilein said. “And we're always thinking how we can bring former coaches and former players back. We've really done a great job. He's been coaching at San Diego State. So, he could never make it back to some of our reunions. That's something we're very hopeful to do in the future.”
Montana hasn’t seen anyone quite like Michigan junior center Moritz Wagner.
Redshirt junior forward Jamar Akoh was still scratching his head about how the Grizzlies plan to slow down Wagner, who can take opposing big men off the dribble and leads all players 6-foot-11 or taller with 53 made 3-pointers this season.
“I'm not sure what we're going to do with that matchup. I'm sure we'll throw a couple different people at him,” Akoh said. “I think this will be our first (stretch five), especially somebody of his caliber.”
And the fact that senior forward Fabijan Krslovic (6-8) and Akoh (6-8) are the tallest starters and play major minutes for Montana will make it even more of challenge.
“We only have a couple guys who are 6-11 (on the roster), so somebody who can shoot the ball the way he does is really hard to simulate,” Akoh said. “It'll be something new for us going out there and we’ll see what we can do with him.”
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.