Last year, Michigan opened their NCAA tournament run by falling into 10-0 hole against a 14-seed. That 14-seed was the Montana Grizzlies, who the Wolverines open with tonight at 9:20 EST on TNT. Four minutes in, the Grizzlies found themselves up 10 but would never lead again after going into the half down by three. This is a team filled with guys who know they can compete with Michigan for stretches. Take them seriously.
The Griz come in with a KenPom rating of 137 and a NET rating of 124. This puts them near the bottom of the field but ask the Dukes and Virginia of year’s past how much that matters. They score roughly 77 points per game while only allowing 68. Most eye-popping, they’re 5-1 on neutral courts this year thanks in large part to a run through the Big Sky tournament to get them here.
Like the Wolverines, the Griz want to slow the game down. You should go into tonight expecting a rock fight. While Michigan ranks 320th in total pace (64.4 possessions), Montana is only slightly faster coming in at 225th (66.5 possessions). Their adjusted offensive efficiency places them right outside the top-100, but this team can really shoot. They rank sixth nationally in effective field goal percentage at a scorching 56.6%. In comparison, John Beilein’s group sits at 111th. They can score from anywhere with 39% of their field goal attempts coming at the rim - a spot where they fall into the top 90th percentile in FG%. When you collapse on their drives and posts, they’ll take advantage from three as they shoot 38.1%, ranking 26th nationally.
Defensively, Michigan should be able to take advantage of their size and strength. Montana ranks in the bottom third when it comes to preventing teams from attacking the basket, and they’re only slightly above average at protecting the rim when opponents do get there. Additionally, they have one of the higher foul rates in the tournament.
Montana returns its three leading scorers from last year’s matchup. Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie dropped 15 points a piece while Sayeed Pridgett chipped in seven off the bench. Oguine and Rorie are two guards who can fill it up from distance shooting 37% and 35% respectively. Both do a lot of their damage off spot ups and the secondary beak, and both guys ranked in the top 1⁄3 of qualified players in transition usage. Rorie will handle the ball as a primary ball handler after averaging four assists per game during the season.
Big man Jamar Akoh will need to put in a better effort than last year for the Griz to pull an upset. The 6’8 senior from Workaholics, California had one of the worst games of his career against the Wolverines in the 2018 tournament. He went 1-6 from the floor and turned it over twice. While he did play solid defense against Mo Wagner, you know he’s going to go into this one hungry. Jon Teske has to be up to the challenge.
What will be the keys to victory for Michigan?
- Take Advantage of Limited Transition Opportunities - As mentioned earlier, Montana is really really bad when tempo is increased. They have a couple of decent shooters, but they don’t have the versatility to play multiple styles. They rank in just the 16th percentile when it comes to opponents eFG% in transition. Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ offense is in the 72nd percentile for executing on the break. I don’t expect a track meet, but look for Zavier Simpson to push the ball a little bit more today.
- Grind Away and Get to the Basket - Montana’s defense is better on the perimeter than it is inside. Michigan’s offense has settled for long jumpers all season long, but they’ve done a better job of taking advantage of teams that are significantly smaller. The Nebraska game comes to mind. Montana is small and their bench may be even shallower than the Wolverines’. Getting Jon Teske lots of looks inside and clearing out cutting lanes for Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis could lead to a party at the rim.
- Just Play Smart - There’s no reason to get cute tonight. Montana is a solid, well coached team that has familiarity with Michigan, but they don’t have the talent level. They don’t have someone with Jordan Poole’s length and quickness, Matthews’ athleticism. Teske’s size, or Isaiah Livers’ all-around game. It’s a good matchup for the Wolverines. Everything Montana is good at, Michigan is better. Coming off of another second half collapse at the hands of the Spartans, I’m hoping for a better start than 0-10.
Dan’s Pick: I think the spread on this game (-14 as of writing this) is too high for my liking, but I am in love with the u130 line. I don’t think this game plays at a pace high enough to get the Griz the type of looks they’ll need to score 60+, and I don’t really see the Wolverines going significantly higher than 70. Last year’s total was 108, for what it’s worth.
Credit to reddit user u/eise87 for the stats