First seen in the Montana Kaimin
After a season of high expectations as the Big Sky Conference favorite, the Griz (26-8) enter March Madness as not just the underdog but a potential Cinderella team playing a two-seed – Michigan.
The Griz lost 61-47 last year to Michigan in Griz head coach Travis DeCuire’s first NCAA tournament appearance. The Wolverines advanced to lose in the 2018 NCAA Championship Game against Villanova. Now, in back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, the Griz will face Michigan.
In the 12th NCAA tournament appearance in school history, the Griz return most of their players from last year’s March Madness game. Michigan is a younger team, but their height presents a huge challenge to the centerless Griz.
“We’ve dealt with size issues a lot this year, and it’s not going to be nothing new,” senior Griz guard Bobby Moorehead said. “I know their center is over seven foot so it’s going to be a tough match-up.”
The team returning to matchup with Michigan is different than last year’s. In 2018, DeCuire said the Griz hit a “brick wall” attempting to play Jamar Akoh, a redshirt senior forward, against the Michigan posts. The team could not convert in the paint.
Akoh’s absence forced the Griz to evolve into a speedy perimeter-focused, outside-shooting offense months ago which sliced through the height mismatches in the Big Sky Conference.
“We’re a different basketball team right now, and I think the way we’re built could be advantageous to how they defend. But on the flip side, they have advantages with size,” DeCuire said.
The Wolverines enter March Madness after a 12-point loss to rival Michigan State. “Now, I feel like we’re moving the ball really well,” said Ignas Brazdeikis, a Michigan freshman guard and forward.
Bobby Moorehead showed his role as the backbone of the Griz team in the Big Sky Championship. The Griz trailed going into halftime of the final game, and Rorie credits Moorehead with pulling the team out of the slump with his steely resolve.
Moorehead is the top Griz defender. Both teams run defensively-focused programs.
“We’re going to have to be great defensively against them. This is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country,” Wolverine head coach John Beilein.
“They’re a downhill team and their fast break is tremendous. It’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Beilein said.
The road to March Madness threw obstacles at the Griz all season. One of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation helped prepare the Griz to face opponents in March Madness, DeCuire said.
The team did not match up well with Creighton or Arizona, losing badly to both teams, which DeCuire credits to injuries that abruptly changed the team lineup.
“I thought we improved from the adversity that we dealt with during those stretches,” DeCuire said.
After a loss to Northern Colorado a few games into the Big Sky conference season, DeCuire gathered the team after a brutal practice.
“I can’t go into the locker room and lie to you,” DeCuire told the team.
“Are your expectations for yourself the next three weeks any different than November?” he asked. Despite the stats, he said the team didn’t always show up.
“We all need to go look in the mirror and figure out what we can fix between now and tomorrow. Get out your feelings and assume responsibility,” he told the team.
They did – winning the Big Sky Championship for the second year in a row.
Only eight 15 seed teams have upset number two seed teams in the NCAA tournament. The Griz have a 5.9 percent chance of winning according to ESPN.
“We’ve got to find a way to keep that ball out of the paint and rebound. But we’ve done that with bigger teams this year, and the question is if we can do it again tomorrow night,” DeCuire said.
If the Griz win tomorrow, it would be the second time since 2006 that Montana advanced past the first round of March Madness.
To DeCuire and a team that took the season one game at a time with a bullseye on their backs, solely the NCAA first round could be a cherry on top of a historical team’s final days. But, this team competes with desperation, DeCuire likes to say. As underdogs facing Michigan, the Griz have nothing to lose and everything to win.
Montana is with them.
“I want to see them walk out of this arena with a smile on their face,” DeCuire said of his senior team. Either that means the Griz win or they walk out proud of the way they represented the Griz community.
“I want them to walk out of here proud. That’s not easy to do in defeat. We gotta find a way to win and play our best basketball,” DeCuire said.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:20 p.m. MT and will be broadcast on TNT. The Kaimin will live tweet the game @kaiminsports.
- Montana has held their opponent under their season scoring average in 28 of their 34 games this season. Michigan is one of the best defenses in the country, consistenly keeping teams under 60 points.
- Spreading the court and making their open shots will be important for Montana. Michigan starts 7-foot-1 center Jon Teske, who will defend the paint unless the Griz can pull him out to the 3-point line.
- Griz rank 30th in the nation for three-point shooting (38 percent), but the Wolverines rank fifth nationally in their defense of three-point shots.
- Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine are the first ever Montana teammates to both hit 1500 career points. Both accolade winning players, the guards both shine when the big lights come on. Junior Michigan guard Zavier Simpson will be assigned to slowing them down.
- The New York Times picked Montana as a Cinderella upset. If it’s right, the Griz could become the story of the tournament.