After nearly two weeks of waiting to finally play basketball, Michigan took the floor and was whistled for a traveling violation on the jump ball.
It was that kind of night in Wichita as the Wolverines slogged their way through one of their worst offensive performances of the season.
The late night session at Intrust Bank Arena was mysteriously delayed by 20 minutes and then featured an extended delay due to an outage at the scorer’s table. Those delays combined with extended NCAA Tournament media timeouts and halftime led to a game that didn’t end until 12:40 a.m. back home in Michigan.
While the final 61-47 score line suggests a routine win, there was an element of Murphy’s Law to the opening four minutes. Zavier Simpson was whistled for two fouls and Montana jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead. Michigan’s backup point guards helped right the ship with 16 quality first half minutes and the Wolverines outscored the Grizzlies 61-37 over the final 36 minutes.
The product on the floor couldn’t match the nightlife in Wichita, KS on a Thursday evening which led to a half empty building that was never quite engaged. The loudest cheers of the night were boos when the officials whistled for a media timeout immediately after a long delay.
Michigan’s defense was as advertised. The Wolverines held Montana to its worst offensive performance of the season at just .71 points per possession. When you hold another team scoreless for nearly a quarter of the game, obviously you are doing something properly.
The dominant defensive performance carried Michigan to the win on a day when the offense wasn’t working. It also pushed Michigan’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranking up to 3rd in the country.
Montana shot just 37% on 2-pointers and 20% on 3-pointers for a brutal 35% effective field goal percentage. Truth be told, Montana’s offense wasn’t all that dynamic. The two post high-low game that the Grizzlies like to utilize was ineffective throughout the night as Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske held their own. Montana’s guard duo of Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine got loose a bit in the first half, scoring 21 points combined, but they only managed to post 9 points in the second half after Zavier Simpson returned from foul trouble.
Michigan’s offense just never found its rhythm. The Wolverines did eventually crack Montana’s trapping action against the high ball screen, consistently working the ball to the big in the middle of the floor where he could find Charles Matthews cutting along the baseline. That adjustment helped Michigan regain control of the game, but sloppy turnovers — especially in transition — prevented the Wolverines from ever really putting it away.
Michigan turned it over on 21% of its offensive possessions and made just 14-of-22 free throws — the sort of unforced errors that could send it home on Saturday rather than booking a charter for Los Angeles next week.
There’s no such thing as a bad NCAA Tournament win and the results on any given Thursday or Friday in March will remind you of just that. Winning six games however you can manage is the goal and Michigan got the job done tonight even if it wasn’t all that fun to watch. This was easily a game that Michigan could have lost and the 10-0 run out of the gate served as a wake up call.
The closest comparison I can think of is Michigan’s NCAA Tournament opening win over Wofford in 2014, that game saw Michigan score just 57 points in 56 possessions in an ugly 57-40 win.
Next up is a Houston team that is playing some of the best basketball in the country and won a thriller thanks to Rob Gray’s game winning layup with 1.1 seconds remaining. Gray scored 39 points in the victory and is one of the best ball screen guards in the country. Once again, the Wolverines will have to wait. Saturday’s game won’t tip until 30 minutes after Kansas and Seton Hall face off at 7:10 p.m.
- Charles Matthews: Montana didn’t have a wing who could matchup with Matthews and he dominated the game with his athleticism. Matthews accounted for essentially a third of Michigan’s scoring, made field goals, defensive rebounds and turnovers. The giveaways were frustrating, but Michigan doesn’t win this game without Matthews setting the tone. He soared for rebounds, finished effectively (7-of-10) in the paint and used his length to stay in front of Montana’s guards.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons played 14 minutes in a critical NCAA Tournament win and saved the Wolverines in a treacherous first half situation. He didn’t just play, he played well. Suggesting that he could lead Michigan back to a NCAA Tournament win would have sounded crazy just months or even weeks ago. He deserves a lot of credit for how he’s battled through this season and weathered the ups and downs to end up with this moment. He had a couple of great passes from the lead guard spot and was 3-of-3 from the floor with tough finishes at the rim.
- Duncan Robinson: We’ve discussed Zavier Simpson’s offensive turnaround this season, but Duncan Robinson has made similar strides on defense. At one point he was basically unplayable, now he’s making impact plays all over the defensive end. He’s staying in front of guards, picking up deflections and bodying up in the post. He had a block and a steal in the victory and also knocked in a critical 3-pointer to help Michigan pull away in the second half.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson’s two fouls before the first media timeout threw his day for a loop, but he got back into the game in the second. He knocked in an early three and had four assists while locking up Montana’s guards when he was on the floor. His decision making in transition left something to be desired as it almost felt as if Montana was baiting the Wolverines into running and throwing all sorts of errant passes.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman could never find any offensive consistency and went just 3-of-11 from the floor, 1-of-6 from deep and 4-of-7 at the free throw line. He scrapped his way to 11 points, but also had 3 turnovers to 2 assists. It was just one of those nights where he never seemed to get comfortable against the Montana pressure defense.
- Moritz Wagner: Montana’s ball screen defense effectively negated Wagner’s ability to stretch the floor — notably he hit a three on the pick-and-pop immediately after Montana stopped trapping — and he never seemed quite comfortable as the trap outlet to make the pass to Matthews on the baseline. He did it a few times, but wasn’t as comfortable getting to the right spot and making the quick pass as Jon Teske seemed to be. Wagner was held scoreless in the first half managed 5 points in the second in his worst offensive game in quite some time.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers had a quiet 15 minutes and when John Beilein was asked after the game if Livers is still trying to get back up to full speed, he said that he thought he played well, but he just loved what Michigan was getting from Robinson defensively right now.
- Jon Teske: Teske had 2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal in 8 minutes off the bench. I thought he played fairly well and helped bottled up Montana’s offense around the rim.
- Eli Brooks: Brooks had what seemed to be an even more improbable stint off the bench with a nice assist and a floater along the baseline. Beilein was going to go back to Simpson late in the first half but chose to stick with Brooks and the gamble paid off with a nice shift.
- Jordan Poole: Poole didn’t play in the second half, a decision that Beilein chalked up to how well the Wolverines were playing on defense.