DES MOINES, Iowa — It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season, but what about facing a team in a single-elimination game for the second year in a row? In a case of déjà vu, Michigan and Montana will face off in a tournament opener Thursday night in Des Moines (Approx. 9:20 PM ET, TNT) in the 2-15 matchup of the West region. The teams contested the West’s 3-14 matchup in 2018.
“It was definitely funny first seeing that,” said Charles Matthews. “What a coincidence out of all these teams we end up with the same team we did last year.”
The Wolverines won last year’s game 61-47 but fell in an early 10-0 hole to the Grizzlies. Charles Matthews led Michigan with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Matthews will be looking to make a similar impact but as he recovers from his ankle injury, his usage could be limited even if he starts Thursday night.
“He was so gassed in a couple games, and Isaiah Livers is playing so well right now,” John Beilein said of Matthews’ availability. “We just gotta continue to try and get this thing together so we can try and get the five best players on the floor at one time I don’t think it was the injury, it was the lack of repetitions, he maybe wasn’t as comfortable.”
One area the Grizzlies have a distinct advantage over Michigan is veteran players. Four of the five starters are seniors and junior Sayeed Pridgett was an All-Conference player in the Big Sky. Beilein had high praise for the Grizzlies lineup in the locker room ahead of Wednesday’s open practice.
“This Montana team is definitely better than last year’s team,” Beilein observed. “ (Kendal) Manuel and (Donaven) Dorsey the two shooters are big-time shooters. They have a Duncan Robinson stroke from deep, they’re athletic and what they do is they open the floor so much for (Ahmaad) Rorie and (Michael) Aguine who are two of the quickest guards I have ever seen. They are Big Ten All-Conference level guards. They start in the Pac-10, and now they’re fourth and fifth-year guys. So that is a big difference.”
The Wolverines understand Montana’s ability to run out in transition could be problematic come Thursday night. The Grizzlies have shifted to a three-point heavy, run and gun approach since star forward Jamar Akoh (15.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG) went down with an injury in early February. Akoh is unlikely to play Thursday as he sat out Montana’s open practice Wednesday at Wells Fargo Arena.
“They get downhill, put you in uncomfortable positions on defense, it’s important that we stay locked in,” said Zavier Simpson.
Staying locked in on defense is what could fuel a deep run for the Wolverines over the next few weeks. Michigan is 6-0 following losses this season and will look to keep that record intact Thursday night in Iowa. If Michigan hopes to make it back to the Final Four, it’s going to require a young Michigan team to do a few things it hasn’t yet shown this year, such as a find a go-to scorer in clutch situations and not get frustrated offensively late in games. Michigan can begin to find those things Thursday night as it looks to go two for two against Montana in NCAA Tournament play.