John Beilein, Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson were on the podium to preview Michigan-Montana.
COACH BEILEIN: I thought right away our reception yesterday was terrific coming into the hotel. Got some great weather. We’ve had a pretty busy winter in Michigan, and the weather is great. So we’re looking forward to this experience.
Q. With the long layoff for your team, where do you feel they’re at mentally and physically heading in?
COACH BEILEIN: That’s probably been the most asked question, and rightfully so. Because I think most of the power conferences you’re used to some rhythm here. But I think back, Wichita State’s been doing it for years when they were in the Missouri Valley and Gonzaga has been doing it out in the West Coast conference.
We used it as a time to — we took three days off in a week, but never three in a row. We went back and worked on some things we really wanted to work at. We tried to play a scrimmage on Friday that simulated a game. I’ll be interested to see how we do, but it will not become an excuse no matter what the results are.
Q. In your 40 years of coaching, have you ever had a ten-day layoff between games in the middle of the season?
COACH BEILEIN: Yeah. When I was both at Richmond and Canisius. In fact, a couple of times at Canisius and Richmond we were in the NIT as well. So it’s happened five or six times.
You just go through it, but I’ve always looked at it as this is a great time for us to get healthy, and it’s a great time for us to work with our guys, especially the young ones. It’s almost like you have the practice before a bowl game in football. It’s great time to develop your team.
So we were able to do some things with some of our younger guys in 20 hours a week that worked pretty good. Watched some film but also really get rest for some of these young men.
Q. Coach, in the time you’ve had to prepare for Montana, what jumps out at you? Any player specifically or style of play that makes them tough?
COACH BEILEIN: No. This is as solid of team as there is anywhere. They’re only playing seven people, but I’m telling you those seven are fitting the pieces perfectly. Really impressed. They remind me, we had two great teams that made the NCAA from Canisius and Richmond. I think Richmond actually was a 14 seed, and we upset South Carolina who was a 3 seed. And they really have outstanding guards. They have just the right pieces up front, mix of inside, outside. The style is terrific. And they really guard you. They create turnovers, which is something that is always concerning to a coach. We’re really good at not turning the ball over. They’re really good at creating them. So that’s going to be a big battle to watch tomorrow.
Q. Obviously I know don’t want to think too far ahead, chance you could play San Diego State, a program built by Steve Fisher. He’s retired now. I think he’s been back on Michigan’s campus once since he was fired, and that was for Bo Schembechler’s funeral. Do you think it’s time for him to maybe be recognized for his contributions to the university? Will you work maybe to bring him back now that he’s retired?
COACH BEILEIN: Steve Fisher and I have been friends long back when he was Michigan coach, and he has gone out of his way over and over again to when I’m on the road, I’m traveling, whatever, the Nike trips, we have actually spent a lot of time together. Steve’s a close friend, and I know that’s in the plans.
Q. Can you elaborate a little bit?
COACH BEILEIN: I’d rather keep it right there. He’s a great friend, and he did a fantastic job at Michigan, and he’s a great friend of mine. And we’re always thinking how we can bring former coaches and former players back. We’ve really done a great job. He’s been coaching at San Diego State. So he could never make it back to some of our reunions. That’s something we’re very hopeful to do in the future.
Q. When you were at West Virginia, you guys played Montana in a tournament down in Florida when Wayne Tinkle was head coach. That was your last year at West Virginia. So how would you say you’ve evolved as a coach since then, or do you have any stories about Wayne or any other Montana coaches you might know?
COACH BEILEIN: That was when we were probably playing half the game 1-3-1 zone. Now we call 1-3-1 zone — it’s Bigfoot. Everybody talks about it and nobody sees it anymore. And we did a lot of that. The only reason I’m still coaching some 43 years later is because we changed like crazy. So that is 11 years ago. If you looked at our teams now and 11 years ago, they’re very different. If you look at them 22 years ago, they’re a lot different than they were 11 years ago.
And that’s what you have to do if you’re a coach. You gotta continue to grow, and you gotta keep up with the game.
Q. Obviously the Griz are excited to be here at this stage. What do you remember from being at the smaller schools, making the NCAA Tournament, how special it is?
COACH BEILEIN: They have — some of the places I have been at, especially Canisius, I think they’ve only gone one time in 50 years or something. So it was a really unique experience. Montana’s got a great tradition of being one of the tops in the Big Sky. And Wayne Tinkle is a friend of mine. He texted me right away as soon as he saw the draw and said take it easy on the Griz. I said, I don’t think we have to worry about that. They’re a very good team.
So it is — it’s a great experience, and they should go in it to win it, because they have talent, and I think most teams — that’s the only approach you can take right now, is so many things can happen. And I’m sure their fans are excited just like the Michigan fans are excited. And it should be a great game.
Q. Coach, your team has struggled at the free-throw line this season, and now at least in the pressure situation of being in the Big Dance. What’s your approach with free-throw shooting? Are you a coach that doesn’t talk about it, are you worried about it at all?
COACH BEILEIN: We just keep working at it. We don’t talk about it a lot. We just work at it. And there are some things that are evolving in the right direction. 50 percent guys aren’t going to go to 80 overnight.
But I thought in the Big Ten tournament when the pressure was on, 21,000, 20,000, whatever it was, playing Purdue and Michigan State, Nebraska, all teams that are either on the bubble or in the NCAA, Iowa, we had to win an overtime game. We weren’t super. Like last year’s team was tremendous. But we got enough done.
So hopefully we’ve worked hard enough on it and they can go up there and get the job done, because it’s not good to have a bad foul shooting team at this time of the year.
Q. Coach, the players that came up for you have all played multiple games in this tournament before. Montana has nobody who’s played in an NCAA Tournament. How much of an advantage or how much of a factor does that play in here?
COACH BEILEIN: We got three guys that have played really in the NCAA. Zavier Simpson played a little last year. We got some young guys now, too, that are getting in there for the first time. We lost four of our top six from last year’s team, four of our top seven I guess you would say. So we’re a little bit new in some areas, but I can’t tell you just like with Montana. Once you go through a Big Ten tournament, a Big Sky tournament. They had to win three in a row, we had to win four in a row.
The NCAA Tournament is certainly special, but I don’t think these kids like have to get ready for it now. They’re already ready. They’re seasoned. And by playing at such high-leverage situations like they were. I mean, it’s not like they were going to get at-large bid, right? They might have deserved one. But they’re not getting at-large bid. They played some pressure games. They’re ready, and we went in there really to win four in a row. You gotta have special kids, and they did that.
Q. 14 seeds have had some success here in recent years. You’re one coach that has experienced that. What makes them such difficult teams to knock out?
COACH BEILEIN: Really good players is the big thing. If you have really good players that perform well, that’s a big difference. I think that the — and many times it’s about a matchup, because everybody will — you’ll always see the upsets — see, to me, I think there’s a big difference between 1and 16. And there might not be. Right. Penn is a really good team. Kansas — Penn is a really good team. And Kansas is a really good team. But there may be some big differences there. Once they start seeding these teams, 2 through 6 and 7 through 10 and then 10 through 14, there’s very little difference in those areas.
And so sometimes it’s just a matter of the matchups were good or maybe your team’s had more experience in it. So that’s why it’s so popular. This is very unpredictable. And teams might have success. But not success like their John Wooden success that they’re always in the Final Four. People get — really good teams are out in this first weekend.
Q. Coach, whether you’re a 3 seed or a 14 seed, to get to this point in the tournament is fun for these student-athletes to be a part of this tournament. As a coach, what’s your message between allowing them to enjoy themselves and have fun and also treat it like business and get some wins?
COACH BEILEIN: Yeah. That’s a good question because as coaches we have to guard against that. But it is still business right now for us. And so I think we’ve been able to do that when we travel on the road and we do whatever, you know. Our kids are in an incredible hotel here. They’re going to do a shoot-around today in front of a lot of people. They’re playing on national TV. I think they understand that and enjoy that.
But this is not about having fun. This is about just the fun comes after you win. And our kids have to be focused on doing their very best. And winning does not come just by saying it. Winning comes because you focused just on doing your best. And that’s all I want, our kids to play our best. And then if the end result is a win, then we have fun.
Q. You guys have obviously had a couple of days off or actually ten full days off before your next game. How have you guys been staying fresh, and do you feel the layoff is going to affect you at all?
MORITZ WAGNER: I think obviously enjoyed the Big Ten Championship a little bit for a couple of days, but then we didn’t waste too much time. We got back to the gym as quick as possible. And yeah, it’s a great challenge waiting for us tomorrow. And we have a lot of work, obviously, to do.
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: Yeah, like Mo said, we enjoyed our championship. And then we got back to work. Took much-needed rest. We had a tough end of the season, a lot of games back to back. And we took a much-needed rest and got back to work and started focusing on Montana.
DUNCAN ROBINSON: Like they both said, got some rest, and then stayed sharp, tried to compete and then clean up some things that we wanted to work on. And then once we found out where we were playing and who we were playing, we started focusing on them.
Q. For them when the Selection Show happens and they see you guys pop up, they might be familiar with you guys because they get to watch you on national television. What is it like for you guys when you see a Montana team that you’ve probably never seen or heard much of before?
DUNCAN ROBINSON: First and foremost, we knew they were a really good team. You don’t win your regular season conference and also win the conference tournament as well without being a good team. So 26, 27 wins, whatever they have.
And we have a lot of respect for them. But the next couple of days after Selection Sunday we were kind of getting used to them, figuring out personnel and tendencies and stuff like that.
MORITZ WAGNER: Yeah. Similar to what Duncan said, I mean, I wasn’t necessarily familiar with the name and the players at first, but I looked at the wins. That was like kind of the key number. And then I figured out that they won both the regular season and the tournament. So that’s a great accomplishment, and they deserve a lot of respect. So yeah. It’s a great challenge.
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: Yeah, like they both said, we saw that they were a great team, winning your season championship and the conference championship. So you knew they were a good team. I actually have a friend from back home that’s a big Montana fan. So he re-tweets stuff on Twitter all the time. So I see guys pop up sometimes.
Q. You guys are being picked to win this game, go far in the tournament. What’s the mindset heading into this first game?
DUNCAN ROBINSON: You know, we’re focused right now on getting one tomorrow. Like we just said, we know this is a really good Montana team that’s won a lot of games this year. So first and foremost, we’re focused on Thursday.
MORITZ WAGNER: I don’t think we’re necessarily worried about who’s picking who. We’re just focused on the next day and the next challenge and approach every game as it’s a championship game, and then we’ll see. But doesn’t matter to us who’s picking who.
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: As they both said, we just can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to focus on the task ahead, and that’s Montana, and that’s all we’re focused on.
Q. For you guys, the short turnaround you have had to see film on Montana, what stands out, why you think they had such a good regular season and conference tournament to be a good basketball team this year?
DUNCAN ROBINSON: First and foremost, they’re talented and they play really hard, and defensively they mix it up, throw different stuff at you. So that’ll be a challenge for us adjusting to that, get up in passing lanes, force turnovers and they play at a good pace.
These are all things we tried to simulate in practice these last couple of days, and hopefully we’ll be ready for it tomorrow.
MORITZ WAGNER: I think they have a really good balance between outside and inside game with a very strong athletic back court and really good inside game as well. And as Duncan said, they’re very challenging to guard. And yeah, they’re a good challenge.
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: Just like Mo said, they have a great balance between guard play and inside play. And I think leadership, they have a lot of experienced players. Definitely helps, and it’ll pose a tough challenge for us.
Q. So with their defensive scheme, obviously that’s their calling card. Could you guys compare their style a little bit what you’ve seen on film to anyone that you’ve played maybe in the Big Ten or all season long?
DUNCAN ROBINSON: Yeah, a little bit with Illinois in our conference, just how they get up in passing lanes, make catches really tough, and then will blitz ball screens periodically.
So we look back on that film and how we fared against them. We learned a lot from that game as well playing against Illinois because they’re a tough team to play against, like Montana is as well. So hopefully that experience we gained will help us tomorrow.
MORITZ WAGNER: I mean yeah, there’s nothing really to add to that. Pretty simple answer.
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: Pretty much Illinois. Same thing.
Q. Not necessarily a basketball question, but do you guys know or can say anything about knowing anything about the state of Montana in general? Just curious.
DUNCAN ROBINSON: It’s got some mountains. I know that. It’s got some great outdoors. I’m from New Hampshire, so I appreciate that sort of stuff. Never been there, but maybe I’ll get to go at some point.
MORITZ WAGNER: Yeah. I just knew that it was in the west, northwest; right? And I kind of connected it to the mountains as well. So that was what I knew.
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: I can’t say I know much. I’m guessing there’s a lot of grizzly bears there. That’s fine with me. Yes. Don’t know too much.
Q. Muhammad, just going back to what you said earlier, I was curious about your friend that tweets about Montana and what that connection is?
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN: He’s actually just a friend from a school around the city of Allentown where I’m from in Pennsylvania. And he just always tweets about Montana sports in general, football and basketball. And so I always just see his tweets. We don’t really talk much, but I always just see it on my Twitter feed.
THE MODERATOR: Okay, guys. Best of luck tomorrow night. Thank you very much.