ANN ARBOR — John Beilein said he knows nothing about Montana and has never been to Wichita.
The only time Beilein has faced Montana was as West Virginia’s head coach when his Mountaineers defeated the Grizzlies in 2006. In the two days that have passed since the NCAA tournament selection show, Beilein, a master of preparation, has probably uncovered an abundance of information on No. 14 seed Montana, including the name of its coach, Travis DeCuire.
“I’ll try to know as much as I can,” Beilein said Sunday.
When a reporter chuckled, Beilein added, “I guarantee you I will not be laughing.”
The reason is because Montana built an impressive resume this season. The Grizzlies won 26 games, the Big Sky Conference regular season championship, and the league tournament. Junior guard Michael Oguine, who averages 15.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game, was named the Big Sky tournament most outstanding player after pouring in 63 points in three games.
Michigan coach John Beilein has learned about Montana ahead of the team's NCAA tournament opener.
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DeCuire has won 63 percent of his games in four seasons, recording at least 20 wins three times. Montana has garnered respect from national pundits; CBS Sports lumped the Grizzlies into “Cinderellas you should strongly consider,” chatter DeCuire is not going to bring up to his team.
“We want to prove that we are here for a reason, that we made it to this stage,” Oguine told reporters in Missoula, Mont. “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.”
A dozen years have passed since Montana last won an NCAA tournament game — an upset of Nevada in a 5-12 game in 2006 before losing in the second round. If the Grizzlies knock off No. 3 seed Michigan on Thursday night in Wichita, Kan., it would be one of the biggest shockers of the tournament's opening weekend. The Westgate Sportsbook in Las Vegas gives the Wolverines 10-to-1 odds to win the national championship, fifth-best in the tournament.
“I think they’re a well-oiled machine,” DeCuire said. “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 [10 days will have passed since Michigan’s most recent game]. But I do think with us going right away and not being laid off is probably going to be our best opportunity to play good basketball.”
Montana enters the tournament in a new position. All season, most lower seeds are heavy favorites each game. Then the tournament arrives and they become lopsided underdogs. It’s no different for the Grizzlies, who find themselves as an 11-point underdog to Michigan. It’s actually the closest line in any of the four 3-14 games.
However, the opponent’s name or Las Vegas’ opinion isn’t going to deter Montana, which brings a six-game win streak along with it. Dating to Christmas, Montana’s lost a grand total of two games.
“We don’t need to look at it like we’re underdogs,” said junior guard Ahmaad Rorie, who averaged 17.3 points and 3.7 assists per game. “We just need to play like we’ve played other high-major teams. They have a good tradition, good history, good program. We just need to play our game the way we know.”
Rorie, an Oregon transfer and former four-star recruit, is the only Montana player who has NCAA tournament experience.
Michigan has experience, though it too is in a slightly different position with the dawn of the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines were doubted for long stretches of the season. But a late-season run, mirroring last year, has thrust UM into the Final Four conversation.
The team’s psyche isn’t going to change, though. For five months, Michigan has been out to prove last season’s postseason heroics weren’t an aberration. Final Four? They first want to beat a pesky 14 seed.
“I don’t like being the hunted,” Beilein said. “We’re going to be the hunters, we’re going to continue to hunt. We’re going after it. We had a great taste last year of what it's like to be in the NCAA tournament. We want more. It was a great ride. So many of these games will be so close and so equal. We spent time [Sunday] working just on last-second plays for whoever we play, so when we call something out we know what we’re doing and can execute it better.”
Beilein may have even learned a thing or two about Montana.
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