Niyo: Weary Wolverines lose their power but survive

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Charles Matthews (1) talks with Michigan guard Jaaron Simmons (5) in the first half. Michigan vs Montana in the first round of the Men's NCAA Tournament at INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan. on March 15, 2018.

Wichita, Kan. – They waited all week. Then they waited all day.

And just when John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines finally started playing late Thursday night – really playing, not just flailing around like a team being mauled by Grizzlies in the wild – they were forced to wait again.

So call this delayed gratification, I guess. Or call it something unprintable, if you prefer. But when the wait was finally over, and the game was, too, that was really the best thing about any of it.

It was over, and the Wolverines were done with it, grinding out a 61-47 win over 14th-seeded Montana in an NCAA Tournament opener that was best described as excruciating for all involved.

It was nearly midnight local time by the time the final horn sounded, and as Beilein stood in the corner of the locker room trying to make sense of it all, he let out a big yawn and rubbed his face.

“It was a long interesting evening in Wichita,” he said, forcing a smile.

Across the room, junior forward Moritz Wagner was wearing a weary smile as well, still shaking off the effects of a head cold while shaking his head at one of the stranger games he’d seen. There was the twice-delayed tipoff and the power outage that halted play. There was a somewhat indifferent crowd, an officiating crew that had everyone guessing, and a hungry opponent ready to pounce on a Michigan team that hadn’t played in a week and a half.

“It was tough,” said Wagner, who had one of his worst games, finishing with five points, six rebounds and four fouls in 32 minutes. “It was a weird atmosphere, too. It’s really late, we hadn’t played in 10 days. And I’ve never had that 15-minute break in the middle, either.”

We’ll get to that in a minute or two. But first, we have to talk about that start, because it was exactly what every Michigan fan feared.

Strange game? Nah, it was more than that.

“It was a scary game,” junior Charles Matthews said. “I mean, you look up and it’s 10-0 and you’re like, ‘Oh, my!’”

Oh, something. He’s right about that. The Wolverines committed three turnovers in the first three minutes, and they also had three fouls by the first TV timeout – two of them on point guard Zavier Simpson, Michigan’s defensive linchpin.

More: Jaaron Simmons gives Michigan ‘big-time’ jolt in win over Montana

Those quick fouls sent Simpson to the bench for the remainder of the half, giving Montana a huge confidence boost and leaving the partisan Michigan crowd howling at the refs. Beilein wasn’t happy with calls, or some of the no-calls, either, “but I felt this is the time that the team needs the coaching staff to stay composed.”

And his message to the players in the huddle was pretty straightforward.

“I just said, ‘Somebody’s gotta make a basket,’” Beilein said.

Matthews finally did on the next possession – starting his first 20-point night since before Christmas –  and then freshman Jordan Poole followed with a 3-pointer. And though neither team really found any offensive rhythm from there, Michigan’s bench did provide a lift, as Jaaron Simmons and Eli Brooks filled in for Simpson at the point – going 4-for-4 while playing turnover-free basketball – and Jon Teske spelled Wagner, who was struggling at both ends of the floor.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s 3-pointer with 3:59 left in the half finally gave Michigan its first lead at 22-19. And when Wagner began the first half with an emphatic dunk off a nice feed from Simpson, it looked like the Wolverines would finally get rolling.

And they might have, but for another delay, as the shot clock went dark and workers went scrambling to find auxiliary power cords. The game was delayed for more than 10 minutes, and even after the players returned to the court, there was another wait as officials tried to figure out how much time should be on the clock.

“That’s just tough for a player, to stay loose and mentally focused,” Wagner said. “And I think you could see it. Because the next 2-3 possessions, they missed shots, we missed shots.”

In fact, the two teams managed just one made field goal over the next six minutes. The Grizzlies actually went more than nine minutes without one, missing 13 of their first 14 attempts in the second half as Michigan’s defense clamped down.

Of course, it also didn’t help that only 42 seconds of game clock ran off following that power outage before a Wagner turnover out of bounds led to another stoppage, this time for a scheduled TV timeout. The fans who'd stuck around through the nightcap, some of them with no vested interest in the game, understandably booed when that happened.

But that was the story of the entire day, really, as Michigan’s long layoff just seemed to drag on and on.

Matthews said he took a nap Thursday. He watched some of the early NCAA Tournament games on TV in the afternoon. He also found a new Netflix show: Seven Seconds.

“Yeah, I was bored,” he said. “I mean, it’s Wichita, so … I mean, no disrespect.”

But by early evening, the Wolverines learned there’d be even more time to kill. The second-session tipoff would be pushed back at least 20 minutes, so Beilein decided to hold the bus. He later wished he’d held it even longer – the game didn’t tip off until 9:26 p.m. local time – but by that point he was getting cabin fever.

Beilein already had taken a long walk down by the Arkansas River near the team’s hotel in downtown Wichita, and the step-counter on his watch ticked past 15,000, “and I just said, ‘I gotta get out of this hotel.’”

But at the same time, Michigan’s coach was well aware of the bear trap that awaited over at the arena.

Montana had a lone win in 10 games against high-major opponents over the last three years, and that came against Pittsburgh, a team that went winless in the ACC this season and finished 8-24. Still, they dominated the Big Sky Conference, won 26 games and showed up in Wichita intent on making life difficult for the Big Ten tournament champs.

The Grizzlies play a physical brand of basketball, blitzing and trapping ball screens and fouling freely despite only going seven deep with their playing rotation. Michigan’s players compared it to Illinois’ in-your-face style in their own conference, and they admitted afterward they reacted poorly to it, at least initially.

“They mixed some stuff up defensively, did some stuff that threw us off a little bit,” said Wagner, who got benched at one point in the second half for missing a baseline cutter from the high post – the “shortstop” role that Beilein calls his Barry Larkin play. “I think it took us a while to get used to it.”

Even after they did, the Wolverines proved to be their own worst enemy, at times, committing nine second-half turnovers – most of them on ill-advised passes in transition. Eliminate those, and the final score looks a bit more satisfying, though Beilein still was encouraged by the way his team held it together and then made its free throws down the stretch, Matthews in particular.

“Obviously, there’s a little rust,” Wagner said. “But still, coming out sluggish like we did, that can’t happen.”

Not Saturday, certainly, because sixth-seeded Houston, which knocked off San Diego State earlier Thursday behind a 39-point performance from star guard Rob Gray, will be an entirely different challenge.

“If we do that against another team,” Wagner said, “then maybe the show’s over.”