PREVIEW: Michigan battles Rob Gray and Houston for spot in Sweet 16

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Minnesota
Feb 19, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein in the second half against the Minnesota Gophers at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Survive and advance. That’s the universal mantra for all teams participating in the NCAA Tournament every single year. And that proved to be very much the case on Thursday when (3) Michigan had to grind out a 61-47 win against (14) Montana in Wichita.

RECAP: The Wolverines found themselves in an early 10-0 through the first four minutes of the game against the Grizzlies, perhaps having to kick off the proverbial rust from having not last played in 11 days. But they bounced back to eventually take a 31-28 halftime lead before pulling away in a not-so-pretty game to watch for either side.

Junior transfer Charles Matthews poured in a game-high 20 points and grabbed down 11 rebounds as well. Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson finished with just five points in 21 minutes of action after getting into some early foul trouble. That opened the door for grad transfer Jaaron Simmons, who logged 14 minutes off the bench and added six points, helping jump-start Michigan back into the contest early on.

UP NEXT: The Wolverines now hone in on a potential second straight trip to the Sweet 16 when they take on (6) Houston on Saturday in Wichita. The Cougars narrowly escaped a first-round upset of their own on Thursday when they downed (11) San Diego State 67-65, on a game-winning layup from Rob Gray, who collected a game- and tournament-high 39 points.

Gray finished the season as the leading scorer in the American Athletic Conference, helping guide Houston to what is likely their best season since the early 80’s and the “Phi Slama Jama” era of Cougars basketball. This year’s Houston club has shades of that in the sense that they have their own three-headed monster in Gray, Corey Davis Jr. and Devin Davis. This trio combines for over 56 percent of Houston’s scoring output this season.

KEY TO GAME: This has the makings of being another “grind it out” type of contest. Both Michigan and Houston carry top-20 scoring defenses nationally heading into this one. And both teams should have a good understanding on how to attack tough-to-score-on defenses, particularly the Cougars. They have had six games this year against top-10 scoring defenses, including three matchups with AAC champion Cincinnati.

Obviously the biggest concern for Michigan defensively will be at least limiting Gray, who can both create his own shot as well as set up for others.

PLAYER TO WATCH: If Michigan wants to up their chances of winning, Moe Wagner needs to be active from start to finish. Wagner logged 32 minutes against Montana on Thursday, scoring just five points on 2/6 shooting from the floor. The Wolverines may be able to get away with that against Montana, but not so much against Houston. Get him involved early and often, it’ll take pressure off guys like Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

  • TIP-OFF: 9:40 p.m. ET on TBS
  • LINE: MICH -3.5
  • MONEY: MICH -170
  • O/U: 134.5