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PREVIEW: Michigan begins NCAA Tournament run in Wichita against Montana

March Madness has finally arrived. The field of 68 for this year’s Division I Mens’ NCAA Tournament was revealed on Sunday. Along the way, we learned that the Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan Wolverines were pegged as a 3-seed in the West Region.

They enter this year’s tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, if not the hottest. However, a big question surrounding them and the rest of the Big Ten teams dancing this March will be the long layoff between games. Michigan will have had 10 full days off inbetween winning the conference tournament and their upcoming first-round contest.

After much speculation about the possibility of playing close to home, Michigan will head out to Wichita, Kansas for the first weekend of the dance. They are slated to tip off approximately before 10 p.m. ET on Thursday against the 14-seed Montana Grizzlies.

THE OPPONENT: Montana (26-7) was both the regular season and conference tournament champions out of the Big Sky Conference this season. Their 26 wins are the most for their program since the 1991-92 campaign when they collected 27 victories. This is the Grizzlies’ 11th tournament appearance all-time, sixth in the last 15 years and first since 2013.

Montana’s success revolved largely around their defense, ranking at or near the top in their league in a number of categories including scoring defense (68.7 PPG). The Grizzlies do carry a solid back court tandem of Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, who combine to average 33 PPG. Montana, however, is not a particularly prolific team from outside, shooting 34.3 percent from three-point land this year (9th out of 12 in the Big Sky).

Montana this season played four games against teams from the “Power 7” major conferences in college basketball, going 1-3 in those games.

KEY TO THE GAME: The biggest key for Michigan in their opening-round tournament game against the Grizzlies will hinder on taking care of the basketball. On average, Montana forces over 15 turnovers per game, which ranked second in the Big Sky and T-21st nationally.

Playing this type of defense would not be totally foreign to the Wolverines. The only other team on their schedule this season that forces more turnovers than Montana was Illinois, who ranked sixth nationally at just under 17 per game forced. Michigan in that lone meeting with the Illini back on January 6 at home committed 15 turnovers but toughed out a 73-63 win.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson has done a lot of growing up for Michigan throughout the season and he really broke through down the stretch.

Simpson, over the team’s current nine-game winning streak, has shown shades of former Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr., in the sense that he’s done a little of everything. Simpson, during that time, has averaged 9.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The modest upticks in those departments not only make him a bigger threat, but open more chances for the Wolverines’ more primary scorers. And defensively, he’s the straw that stirs the drink for a much-improved defense for Michigan, adding to his all-around repertoire.

The biggest crutch in Simpson’s game continues to be his free throw shooting, converting on just under 52 percent of his attempts this year. Should the game become reasonably close down the stretch, look for Montana to try and foul Simpson if he’s on the floor.

  • TIP-OFF: Thursday, March 15
  • TIME: Approx. 9:50 p.m. ET

Written by Alex Muller

MSU Graduate. Just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit. Baseball is life, a pitcher at heart. Freelance writer for MIPrepZone (News-Herald, Press & Guide).

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