After a long layoff, Michigan will have to wait until the final game of the night on Thursday to take the court again (9:50 p.m., TBS). The Wolverines will be facing the No. 14 seeded Montana Grizzlies, the Big Sky regular season and tournament champions.
Montana is 2-11 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, with wins over Utah State (1975) and No. 5 seed Nevada (2006). The Grizzlies have only lost two games since Christmas, but don’t have a KenPom top-100 win to their name on the year.
More on Montana:
As a team, Montana is known across the Big Sky for its ability to bully smaller and less athletic opponents. The Grizzlies are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in their league, they pound the ball in the post with an array of high-low and two-post looks, they get to the free throw line, and they shoot fewer threes than the average Big Sky team. Montana leads the conference in percentage of points scored inside the arc and is ranked 2nd in offensive rebounding, grabbing almost a third of its misses in league play.
This isn’t a plucky small ball spread and shred high ball screen mid-major team that is going to fire up dozens of 3-point attempts. Instead, Montana is a team that is going to try to play its game against Michigan and pound the ball inside. Montana isn’t a great shooting team, making 51.9% of their twos (98th) and 34.1% of their threes (217th) for a 51.7 eFG% (145th),
Much will be made about Montana’s defense and its ability to turn teams over and rightfully so. The Grizzlies are ranked 30th nationally in forced turnover rate and led the Big Sky by forcing giveaways once every five defensive possessions in league play.
Montana will apply full court pressure at times — roughly 10% of defensive possessions — but the press is used more as a game control mechanism than an all-out defensive strategy. The Grizzlies don’t press as often as a team like VCU (30% of possessions) that hangs its hat on full court defense, instead they apply pressure in the half court. Montana will overplay passing lanes, trap ball screens and play aggressively on the ball defense to try to disrupt a team from running their half court sets.
That aggressive mindset does force turnovers, but it also leads to fouls. Montana is ranked 315th nationally in defensive free throw rate and there are only three NCAA Tournament teams that send opponents to the charity stripe more often (Arkansas, West Virginia and Stephen F. Austin). Making free throws will be as a critical as ever in Michigan’s NCAA Tournament opener.
We broke down Montana’s seven-man rotation in depth with video, shot charts and more on Tuesday. Read that full story here, but here are the spark notes.
- Ahmaad Rorie is Montana’s primary ball handler. He’s a great shooter off the bounce and loves the elbow pull-up jumper. He operates effectively out of ball screens and in transition, but isn’t a great shooter off the catch. Rorie started his career at Oregon and is a big time player who can fill it up off the bounce.
- Michael Oguine is a hyper-athletic combination guard who is Montana’s best defender and a great finisher at the rim. He has a quick first step and consistently drives past opposing defenders to get straight to the rim.
- Bobby Moorehead is a catch and shoot threat on the wing who draws praise as Montana’s glue guy. He attempts twice as many shots from 3-point range as 2-point range.
- Jamar Akoh is an old school post player with a wide body. He does a great job of playing with his back to the basket and gaining position to beat his defender before he even catches the ball.
- Fabijan Krslovic is Montana’s other starting big man. The 6-foot-8 Australian doesn’t move very well, but has fundamental post moves on the block and can pass it effectively.
- Sayeed Pridgett is a guy who I expect to play heavy minutes in this matchup. The Montana sixth man comes off the bench and plays the four position next to one of the other two big men. He’s only 6-foot-5, but he’s athletic and can finish through contact.
- Timmy Falls is a freshman guard who has some creativity with the ball and an effective jumper from the wings.
- Attack pressure: Montana is going to extend pressure and try to turn you over. The Grizzlies will press on around 10% of defensive possessions, they’ll overplay passing lanes and they’ll trap ball screens. There’s only one team in the country who turns the ball over less than Michigan, but the key for the Wolverines will not just be holding onto the ball as much as exploiting the weaknesses on the other side of the pressure. A trapped ball screen means that a Moritz Wagner slip is open and that there are numbers advantages away from the ball. Overplaying passing lanes means that backdoor passes are open. The key will be for Michigan to hit these early and take advantage.
- Defend high-low post action: Montana runs a two-post offense that includes heavy passing action between bigs. Krslovic and Akoh will play in the high low, they’ll cut to the opposite block when the other has the ball and they are both adequate passers. This isn’t something that Michigan sees every day in the Big Ten and the Wolverines will have to adapt to guarding both big men, especially at the four position where U-M will usually be the smaller team.
- Contain dribble penetration: Montana’s guards have plenty of talent. Rorie began his career as a high-major player (and I wouldn’t be surprise if he ended it as one as a graduate transfer next year) and Oguine is an elite athlete. Michigan’s defensive backcourt has been stellar this year, but this isn’t a test to take lightly. If I had to compare the Grizzlies to a Big Ten backcourt, I might go with the Minnesota combination of Nate Mason and Isaiah Washington that gave the Wolverines some trouble a few weeks back.
- Moritz Wagner: I’m not convinced that Montana has anyone who can guard Moritz Wagner in the pick-and-pop. They’ll try to disrupt Michigan’s flow with different half court traps and ball scheme coverages, but in space I don’t see a Grizzly who can stay in front of Wagner and keep him from getting loose. The German big man still has to actually make the shots, but in the past he’s struggled against 6-foot-8 versatile long athletes and Montana only has the sort of traditional prodding big men that he’s carved up in the past.
This is a No. 3 vs. No. 14 game, but Montana doesn’t seem like the kind of team to back down. They’ve played on the road at high-major opponents and hung in games at Penn State and Washington. They might not be battle tested in the Big Sky, but their KenPom ranking is higher than Big Ten teams like Wisconsin, Northwestern and Minnesota.
KenPom projects a 70-62 Michigan victory, giving the Wolverines a 76% chance of advancing to the weekend.