Ann Arbor — The show dragged on through one commercial break, and then another. The NCAA Tournament brackets were largely known, and yet still the Michigan Wolverines sat — waiting and wondering — in the front of a conference room packed with coaches, athletic department staff, families, friends and members of the Maize Rage student fan section.
There was a collective groan in the room as Michigan State flashed on the screen. The Spartans had grabbed the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region and would be starting close to home in Detroit, which meant the Wolverines were heading out on the road.
But when, and where? For a team that already was tired of waiting — a full week removed from its last game, cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden as Big Ten tournament champs — this was almost too much to bear.
“You kind of get nervous, even though you know you’re already in,” junior Moritz Wagner said, laughing, once the made-for-TV suspense was mercifully over. “I mean, we were sitting there, like, ‘Is there something going on? Are we still in?’”
They’re in, all right. And whether they like it or not — you can probably guess the answer to that one if you look at a map — they’re headed to Wichita, Kansas, where the third-seeded Wolverines (28-7) will face No. 14 seed Montana (26-7) on Thursday in a first-round matchup at Intrust Bank Arena (9:50 p.m. TBS/950 AM).
Michigan was deemed the 11th-best team in the field of 68 by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, two spots behind the Detroit-bound Spartans — a Big Ten rival they swept in their only two meetings — and one spot behind a Tennessee team that’s headed to Dallas to face Horizon League champ Wright State.
Mapping it out
“Never been to Wichita before,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It’ll be great just to go. I wish our fans were closer, but they’ll find a way to get there.”
And if not, well, Beilein isn’t about to complain right now, not with an opponent to prepare for that he knows nothing about and only a few days to come up with a gameplan.
Sure, he would’ve liked to play opening-round games at Little Caesars Arena, only 45 miles from his office.
“It would’ve been really convenient for everybody,” Beilein admitted, when asked about the selection committee’s final verdict. “But they’ve got a difficult job. So we were ready for anything.”
But Montana? In Wichita?
Asked what he knew about Michigan’s first-round opponent, Wagner shook his head and smiled.
“Nothing,” he said.
Not even the school nickname?
“What is it?” he asked.
“Grizzlies,” he was told.
“OK, now that’s the first thing I know about Montana,” he replied.
Actually, it’s the second thing. The first thing, he added, is that “they had a lot of wins, so they must be really good.”
And that was part of Beilein’s quick message to his team before he sent them home for the night, while his assistants scrambled to find out as much as they can about the Grizzlies, who’ve won 19 of their last 21 games, including three straight comeback victories to claim the Big Sky tournament title.
This is Montana’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013, when the Grizzlies were thumped in an opening-round game by Syracuse, 81-34.
But just the other day Beilein was busy relieving one of his earliest NCAA Tournament memories — it was 20 years ago today, in fact — when his 14th-seeded Richmond Spiders knocked off No. 3 seed South Carolina in a first-round game in Washington D.C.
Gunning for bear
So why are these lower-seeded teams so dangerous?
“Because they’re good,” Beilein said. “I mean, I’ve been there, right?”
And now that he’s on the other side of things, he’s not about to let his team forget that.
Since arriving at Michigan, his teams have only lost twice as the higher seed in the NCAA tourney — a first-round stunner against 13th-seeded Ohio in 2011, and a regional final loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky. Beilein’s teams also are 10-2 as the higher seed in the Big Ten tournament over his 11-year tenure in Ann Arbor.
Beilein also is 11-4 in his last four NCAA trips with the Wolverines, failing to get out of the first weekend just once. That was two years ago when the Wolverines scratched their way into the tournament and squeaked out a First Four win in Dayton before running out of gas in a first-round loss to Notre Dame — their fifth game in nine days.
This time, they’re rested, and recharged. They’re also a far better team than either that injury-plagued team in 2016 or last year’s group that skidded off a runway and then made an unexpected run in March, winning the Big Ten tourney and then advancing to the Sweet 16.
These Wolverines do the things that Beilein’s teams typically do. They don’t give away possessions — Michigan’s ranked No. 3 in the nation in turnover rate — and they shoot a lot of three-pointers. But they also have figured out how to limit opponents’ three-point attempts while proving to be one of the nation’s better defensive rebounding teams.
And with Zavier Simpson’s emergence during conference play — a pit bull playing point guard — the Wolverines suddenly have the look of a legitimate Final Four contender.
A full week has passed since Michigan won its second consecutive Big Ten tournament title. But after taking a well-deserved day off, the Wolverines got back to work this week with what Wagner described as “October practices.” Tuesday’s practice set the tone. (”I think a guy was running to the top of Crisler within 10 minutes,” Beilein said.) They went for more than 2 hours Thursday, and it was “chippy,” everyone agreed. And while Friday’s scrimmage wasn’t exactly a work of art, they all know the real work begins now.
Wichita might not have been the preferred destination, but Beilein isn’t the only one who was hoping they’d draw a Thursday game instead of having to wait until Friday.
“We’re itchin’ to play another game, to be honest with you,” senior Duncan Robinson said. “This last week was great. I think we got a lot better. But we’re excited it to take it out on somebody else.”
Whoever they are, and wherever they’ll meet.
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.