DES MOINES, Iowa – The teams, the players, even the setting in a midsize city in the heart of the Midwest. It all felt familiar for the Wolverines as they opened the NCAA Tournament.
Then Montana lined up 6’2 guard Michael Oguine against 7’1 Jon Teske for the jump ball. It was indicative of how big of a mismatch this game would be unlike the meeting in 2018. Instead of Montana shocking Michigan by jumping out to a 10-0 run, the Wolverines came out firing from the start. Jordan Poole missed a three-pointer, but Charles Matthews was right there for the second-chance bucket to put it away under the rim for the first points of the game. Matthews went on to lead the Wolverines with 22 points and ten rebounds.
“I’m getting more healthy, simple as that,” Matthews said about his fast start to the game. “I’m getting more comfortable out here now.”
The Wolverines opened the game on a 15-4 run while playing lockdown defense against Montana’s small-ball lineup, dominating the first half and building a lead that would hold despite some sequences of sleepwalking by Michigan. The 2 seed Wolverines defeated the 15 seed Grizzlies 74-55 to advance to the Round of 32. The win improved Michigan to 7-0 on the year coming off a loss.
“He asked me a fun question guys, what’s the answer to that?” John Beilein joked with a reporter who asked if the Wolverines win was fun for the coach. “I never have fun but I know the team had fun. Just getting a win and enjoying this. What is best about the NCAA Tournament is we don’t have to get up at 6 AM and have a game at noon tomorrow. We can enjoy the win tonight and then have a day to really think and prepare.”
Michigan spoke Wednesday openly about a team meeting John Beilein held on Monday following the loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Beilein told his players they had 24 hours to feel bad then had to move forward to Montana if they wanted to achieve their remaining goal this year: winning a national championship. “We’re not going to let Michigan State beat us twice,” Beilein said.
“We’re a great bounce-back team,” said freshman Ignas Brazdeikis.”We say it all the time. We could get hit in the face, we could get knocked down but we’re going to get right back up and we came in with that mentality that we know this could be our last game, so we gave it our all.”
His team recovered well, looking right at home in Des Moines with patches of maize and blue peppering the crowd inside Wells Fargo Arena. The only concern was Michigan being its own worst enemy. Finishing the first half with eight turnovers (the Wolverines average just 8.8 per game) and only scoring one field goal in the final three minutes of the first half. For a team that led by 13 and made it to the national championship game last year, it wasn’t wholly unexpected, but Beilein was unhappy with the end of the half.
“That’s not like us,” Beilein spoke of the final stretch of the first half. “We’re averaging 8.8 a game, but credit them, they got out in some passing lanes, we were a little sloppy with the ball and that was a big message.”
Zavier Simpson, who had four of those turnovers, took his poor play in the first half personally.
“When we came in at halftime, I noticed his body language was bad at halftime,” Beilein said. “I said alright, you gotta forget about the four turnovers, he was beating himself up, forget about it. You gotta come out here in the second half and run this team ’cause the team is gonna feed off your body language. He had a great second half.”
Simpson finished the first half with two points, four rebounds, three assists, and four turnovers.
“He just told us keep playing, keep focused, limit the turnovers,” Simpson said of the halftime message. “Sometimes we gotta just relax, know that this is just a game, it isn’t rocket science.”
Simpson took the message to heart, finishing the game with four points, seven rebounds, ten assists, and zero second-half turnovers.
Beilein stressed after Sunday’s loss to Michigan State that “good teams value each possession.” Michigan did not do enough of that for small sequences Thursday night, but a 10-0 run early in the second half was enough to put the Grizzlies away for good. Montana never drew closer than eight points in the final twenty minutes of the game.
“Right away we responded, so it was huge,” Beilein said after Montana got out to a 5-0 run to open the second half, drawing to within eight points of Michigan. “Some of those points were not pretty points, we just got points. Having JP and Charles make the threes back to back gets you a little bit of space.”
For Matthews, Thursday night’s win was an excellent return to form for the senior who was voted Most Outstanding Player in the West region during the 2018 NCAA Tournament. He showed no signs of lingering damage from his ankle injury, racking up 36 minutes of playing time.
“First few games I didn’t just want to come out here and mess up the flow of the team,” said Matthews of his return to action during the Big Ten Tournament. “I wanted to get my feel back, I was able to use those games to make it a test run.” Matthews went on to say he’s not completely healthy, “I’m getting there though” he added.
After scoring 20 points and collecting 11 rebounds during the Wolverines and Grizzlies meeting in 2018, the sequel was even better for the Chicago native. 22 points, ten rebounds, and he started the game 5 for 5. Matthews approach was symbolic of the best of Michigan on Thursday. The senior recorded his first double-double since January 25 at Indiana (10 points, 11 rebounds) and his highest scoring output since February 12 vs Penn State (24 points.)
Brazdeikis, who had been looking forward to playing under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, played like his usual self. The freshman finished the night with 14 points, seven rebounds and did get into a minor verbal spat midway through the second half with a few Grizzlies players after trying to shoot the ball into the hoop following a whistle for a shooting foul on Montana’s Sayeed Pridgett. His signature moment was an alley-oop dunk in the first half off a feed from Jordan Poole (pictured above.)
“I usually come into things with no expectations,” Brazdeikis said postgame. “But the atmosphere, everything was a lot of fun. I love this intensity. One and done, you could lose and you’re out so that is a lot of fun. The whole tournament feel, the media, the lights, I am just embracing every moment of that.”
The freshman will look to perform like his friend Nik Stauskas did in 2013 come Saturday against the Florida Gators. Michigan won that Elite 8 game 79-59 with Stauskas shooting 7-8 from the field and 6 for 6 from three-point range for 22 points as Michigan clinched a berth in the Final Four.
Thursday night’s win wasn’t glamorous, but the Wolverines showed some promise and did what they were supposed to. In this tournament, the wins all count one, and Michigan is looking to avoid the fate it suffered last Sunday against Michigan State for as long as possible. The team will awaken Friday and begin preparing for Florida as the Wolverines look to punch their ticket to Anaheim and keep on dancing towards Minneapolis.