DES MOINES, Iowa — Jon Teske crashed to the floor under the basket, hit from behind by a Montana defender. On the Michigan sideline, John Beilein turned to assistant coach Luke Yaklich.
“That’s a cheap shot!” Beilein exclaimed in disbelief.
If Beilein was right, maybe the Grizzlies just didn’t have another choice. And if that was the conclusion they came to, no one could really have blamed them.
Basketball, in its crudest form, is a game of height, and the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament opener against Montana on Thursday was far from the most refined version of the sport. Michigan committed 12 turnovers and shot 29 percent from 3-point range. Montana was even worse, hitting just 20 of 60 field goals and scoring 0.81 points per possession.
Ultimately, what gave the Wolverines a 74-55 win was just enough scoring, and a defense as stingy it has been all season. And as usual, the defensive performance was anchored down low with Teske.
Teams from the Big Sky don’t usually match up physically with No. 2 seeds from the Big Ten. The Grizzlies are no exception — and that was before their regular starting center, Jamar Akoh, was lost for the season due to injury. In Akoh’s place, they’ve been forced to start Bobby Moorhead, a 6-foot-7, 192-pound shooting guard by trade, in the middle. Against the 7-foot-1 Teske, this went about how you would expect.
Teske had 11 points and nine rebounds in his 23 minutes on the court, Michigan outscored Montana by 25 points. The junior center constantly impacted shots around the rim, and on offense, the Grizzlies simply couldn’t deny him.
“He’s a mismatch problem,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. “They’re all really short, so just get him the ball. He can make plays, he can kick out, he can score.”
While the Big Ten has no shortage of physical beasts down low, the Wolverines spent most of non-conference play dealing with smaller teams — Teske said Thursday reminded him of Michigan’s 56-37 win over Holy Cross in November, in which the Crusaders caught the Wolverines off-guard at first with a series of small-ball centers.
This time, Michigan was ready.
“Just throw it up top,” Zavier Simpson said. “This guy is big — go up top and have him go get it. They wanna score, make a play, he’s gonna get it.”
Montana threw a twist in, however. It knew the Wolverines would be able to easily run offense through Teske, so its defensive strategy focused on denying him the ball in the first place. The Grizzlies tried to trap Simpson on the perimeter and switch on screens, just as many of Michigan’s Big Ten opponents have done.
Simpson said that he was impressed with Montana’s ball-screen coverage. But in a manner exemplary of the mismatch in sheer talent and physicality, the junior point guard still ended up with 10 assists — four of which Teske finished off.
“In the Big Ten, any time a team switches, now you got a 6’7, 6’8 guy switching on (Simpson), which makes that post entry pass a little bit tougher,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “They were 6-(foot)-3, 6-4, 6-5, and so we just basically had a jump ball-type pass that only Jon can get.”
Defensively, Teske — although he didn’t record a blocked shot — altered the flow of the Grizzlies’ normally effective downhill penetration. Montana’s guards found their lanes to the basket completely shut off. As a result, the Grizzlies’ outside shooting suffered — they hit just five of 19 from beyond the arc.
“It allows you to put more pressure out on the perimeter, knowing that you got somebody at the rim that can kinda erase some stuff, deter some of those shots,” Washington said. “ … The better that you can contain your man, the less you have to help.”
Make no mistake, Michigan won’t have nearly as favorable a matchup again this season. The teams it’s likely to meet over the rest of its postseason run will offer height and post presences that Montana doesn’t have anything close to.
But Thursday, the Wolverines were happy for the opportunity to overwhelm an opponent by simply walking onto the court.