MISSOULA — An aggressive scheduler of Power Five teams, Montana head coach Travis DeCuire was resigned to the wait-and-see game during Sunday’s bracket reveal for the NCAA tournament.
The Griz were matched up with a worldwide brand and will try to prove themselves on the national stage as they continue a season that includes a Power Five win, outright regular-season title and conference tournament title — all firsts under the fourth-year head coach.
Montana was awarded a 14 seed in the bracket’s West region and will open the NCAA tournament against Big Ten tournament champion Michigan at 7:45 p.m. Thursday at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas.
“Those are the types of teams that we’ve been trying to build ourselves to be able to compete against,” DeCuire said. “Now we have that opportunity, and we’ve been recruiting to (do) it.”
The Wolverines’ No. 3 seed is the second highest they’ve earned under 11th-year head coach John Beilein. They enter the tournament with a 28-7 overall record and won the Big Ten tournament championship, as the No. 5 seed, for the second consecutive season.
Michigan was No. 11 on the NCAA tournament’s overall seed list, while the Griz finished No. 56 out of 68 teams.
“We're going into a national tournament and no one really expects us to do anything, so we know that we're going to have to be each other's energy, each other's motivation and for us to do anything, it's going to have to be as a group,” Griz senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “We're not going to be able to beat teams by playing one-on-one basketball if we're not together. We're going to have to stick together and that's how something's going to happen.”
Michigan beat No. 4 Michigan State and No. 8 Ohio State in the regular season, and No. 2 Michigan State and No. 8 Purdue in the conference tournament.
Montana and Michigan had two common opponents this season. The Griz beat UC Riverside 77-61, while the Wolverines won 87-42. Montana lost to Penn State 70-57, and Michigan won 72-63. The Wolverines needed overtime to beat UCLA, who the Griz were scheduled to play before the game was canceled because of area wildfires in southern California.
“We want to prove that we are here for a reason, that we made it to this stage,” Griz junior Mike Oguine said. “We work on our stuff a lot. We work hard every day just like Michigan does. We put on our shoes the same way they do. We're going to take the floor and be prepared, give them what we got, show them all the work we've done so far this year and just make the state of Montana proud."
The Wolverines bring a stingy defense, limiting opponents to 63.5 points per game, the No. 8 scoring defense in Division I. They’ve won nine games in a row and haven’t allowed over 72 points in regulation since Jan. 25 against No. 3 Purdue.
Offensively, the Wolverines average 74.5 points per game, 157th in the NCAA. They have three players scoring in double figures and are led by Moritz Wagner, who averages 14.5 points per game, 7.1 rebounds and is shooting 52.9 percent from the field.
DeCuire said he hasn’t seen the Wolverines play this year. Oguine and Krslovic said they’ve watched games as college basketball fans, and Krslovic called Wagner “one of the best bigs in the country.”
Michigan has been off since winning the Big Ten tournament title on March 4, so it could be fresher than the Griz, who played their third game in three days on Saturday, including an overtime contest.
“I think they’re a well-oiled machine,” DeCuire said of Michigan. “They’ve been here before, they’ve done this before. They’re Big Ten. They’re experienced. I don’t see any advantages for us with them being laid off, but I do think with us going right away and not being let off is probably going to be our best opportunity to play good basketball.”
DeCuire has been on two NCAA tournament teams as a player and been on a coaching staff for six total at Cal and Old Dominion. He said the advice he’d give his team is to “be loose” and “do what you do.”
“The teams that go in clicking and playing their game the best are the ones that make games,” he said. “That’s what we’ve got to do. I think our defense, our philosophy, our style of play is built to win in the postseason. You just got to do it at a high level.”