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With the offense struggling, Michigan used defense to beat Montana

The Wolverines were carried by their defensive effort in the First Round.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Michigan vs Montana Kelly Ross-USA TODAY Sports Images

Though the goal of any college basketball season is to make the NCAA Tournament, Thursday night (and part of Friday morning) felt like a letdown for Michigan fans. This season was not supposed to yield a No. 3 seed in the Tournament, yet few teams have been hotter than the Wolverines over the past month. So naturally, with expectations heightened and the destination finally here, Michigan looked both unenthusiastic and sloppy.

…or did they? The final score of 61-47 may not be completely indicative of how the game played out, but in many ways the reactions from the game are not wholly accurate either. Yes, Michigan seemed lazy on offense for much of the game and failed to find any consistent rhythm. This was certainly not one of their best performances on this side of the ball, and it was their first time under 70 points since the loss at Northwestern.

However, the oddity of this season is that the team is built on defense, and that is how they beat Montana. Astonishingly, Thursday’s victory moved the Maize and Blue up to No. 3 on Kenpom’s defensive rankings. Let that sink in – third in the nation on defense!

Like all teams from small conferences, drawing conclusions from Montana’s season is near impossible. Still, the numbers from Wichita tell a convincing story. The Grizzlies entered the game scoring 77.2 points per game with a 46.7 percent field goal percentage and a 33.9 percent rate behind the arc. Those numbers on Thursday? 47 points, 32.1 percent from the field, and 20.0 percent from three.

While Michigan failed to play aggressive on offense, they did not take many breaks on defense, despite many things not going their way; they were not helped by some very questionable foul calls, especially early in the game, nor were they helped by uncharacteristic turnovers by the offense leading to transition opportunities for Montana. Even so, they locked in and allowed just 37 points over the game’s final 36 minutes after their disastrous start.

Tougher teams will take advantage of a sleepy Michigan offense and will not go literally 30 minutes of real time without scoring a basket, but one reward for an excellent regular season is an easier First Round matchup. The Wolverines showed that their defense is one of the best in the country, and that subpar offensive games are not the end of the world.

Many would like to forget Thursday’s affair, and many probably will, but saying it was Michigan’s worst outing of the season is completely overlooking what is perhaps the team’s biggest strength. Defense-first basketball may not be as exciting as raining down threes all game long, but do not shortchange the excellent effort they demonstrated in Kansas.