Michigan set to challenge in manageable West Region

Sunday, March 11, 2018 - 8:32pm

Junior forward Moritz Wagner is excited about the opportunity to play North Carolina again

Junior forward Moritz Wagner is excited about the opportunity to play North Carolina again Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

After a week-long respite following its Big Ten Tournament championship, the Michigan men’s basketball team finally has its NCAA Tournament path.

The 3rd-seeded Wolverines will face No. 14 seed Montana on Thursday afternoon in Wichita, Kan. Michigan will be in the West Region, with Xavier and North Carolina as the two higher-seeded teams, respectively. 

“We’re flattered that we have a 3 seed,” Michigan coach John Beilein told reporters shortly after the bracket was unveiled Sunday evening, “but as I said to everybody, a 2, 3, 4 seed doesn’t make a difference because who can tell what the 12, 13, 14, 15 seeds are like? They’re all the same, too. They’ve got to put some numbers into a hat and see how it’ll all look.”

Beilein said his assistants and staff would be up late into the night trying to learn about the Grizzlies.

“Nothing,” Beilein said with a few chuckles when asked what he knows about his opponent. “We played them when I was at West Virginia in a tournament, but it was many coaches ago.

“I guarantee I will not be laughing (tomorrow).”

Montana is ranked 71st according to KenPom.com, and was 0-4 against teams in the KenPom.com top 100. It finished 26-7, winning the Big Sky regular season and tournament title.

If Michigan is able to take care of Montana, it would face the winner of No. 6 seed Houston and No. 11 seed San Diego State. The Cougars currently sit at 17th in the KenPom.com rankings, the highest of any 6 seed in the field. They fell just a point shy of winning the American Athletic Conference Tournament, losing 56-55 to Cincinnati in the tournament final on Sunday. On short rest, they would indisputably present a challenge before perhaps the most highly-anticipated matchup in the region.

But if both teams take care of their lower-seeded first weekend opponents, Michigan and North Carolina would square off in Los Angeles for a spot in the Elite Eight. The game would be a rematch of an early November contest that the Tar Heels won handily, 86-71.

North Carolina forward Luke Maye imposed his will on fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson in that one, scoring 27 points.

After that contest, a disappointed John Beilein told the media “(North Carolina) might be that good, but we’re definitely not that bad.

“Just watch this team grow, you’ll like what they do.”

Following an embarassing loss, that statement was met with ambivalence. But it has proven true throughout the progression of the season.

Since then, the Tar Heels have played up to snuff, fighting at or near the top of the ACC as a defending national champion is expected to do. They won 25 games — including two over arch-rival Duke — and lost in the ACC Tournament final Saturday night.

Michigan, of course, has flipped the script just as Beilein foretold.

The Wolverines improved steadily, reaching a crescendo at the Big Ten Tournament, where they ripped off four wins in four days, including two against top-5 opponents. For many reasons, a rematch would be a whole different ballgame. And junior center Moritz Wagner would like to find out.

“We were a different team back then,” Wagner said. “That’s definitely something, as a competitor, you would look forward to.”

And if it were to advance past North Carolina, Michigan would need to win one more game — possibly against Atlantic 10 regular season champion Xavier or West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga — to make the once-unimaginable trip to San Antonio for the Final Four.

It’s no longer unimaginable. Beilein and his team would never entertain those chances, of course. But the Wolverines are one of the hottest teams in the country, riding a nine-game winning streak into the Big Dance. Michigan will be a trendy pick in your bracket pool. It currently has the fifth-best odds to win the national title at 10/1, according to Westgate Las Vegas.

And it avoided the gauntlet of, say, the South Region, filled with heavyweights like Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Cincinnati and Tennessee. 

The bracket is set. Let the madness begin.