Players, Beilein react to March Madness matchup against Montana
Before Sunday’s NCAA Tournament selection show, John Beilein stood up from his chair and addressed a crowd of Maize Rage students.
“In 2008-09, we broke the streak,” Beilein said. “There had been 11 years where Michigan hadn’t been in the tournament. And it was very different than this atmosphere because we didn’t know if we were in or not. … It never gets old.
“We don’t know where we’re gonna go, we don’t really care. We don’t care where we seeded, that we’re Big Ten champions again.”
Beilein spoke with a businesslike intonation. The upcoming hour, though — when Michigan would learn of its matchup as a No. 3 seed against No. 14 seed Montana in Wichita, Kan. — would be playful and animated.
Michigan State was placed as a No. 3 seed in the final spot in Detroit, and boos cascaded forward. When the final spot for Boise, Id. was decided, freshman forward Isaiah Livers grabbed his chest in relief. The team smiled and chattered.
Then, the Wolverines learned their tournament fate would begin in Wichita with a Thursday 9:50 p.m. tipoff, and John Beilein high-fived his players. Almost all of the roster has never been to Wichita — Beilein included — and they too switched to a businesslike demeanor.
“I don’t know too much,” said freshman guard Jordan Poole. “Obviously, it’s a place where we can go, we can lock in and do anything and get some wins.
“Being able to go out there and see a team like a Montana — this is our job and this is what we’re here for, so we’ve got a lot of confidence.”
Following a few minutes of repartee after the announcement, the Michigan players huddled around Beilein to discuss their next steps. For the first time in over a week, the Wolverines could get ready with a studiable opponent in mind.
For junior forward Moritz Wagner, it’s the last piece of the puzzle to start a tournament run.
“You kinda know each other so well it’s hard to take that next next step,” he said of the team’s practices. “I know Jon Teske, I know everything he does. … (Preparing for an opponent is) more specific and more interesting. Being on the road is fun too for a cool event.”
Wagner, though, will be back in unfamiliar territory.
“I know it’s in Kansas. I know Kansas and Missouri have something going on there with Kansas City, right?” Wagner said. “I just got to know that their names were the Montana Grizzlies. I just don’t know them at all. They’re very good probably because they’re in the Tournament, they’ve got 26 wins. That’s a lot of wins. You’ve gotta respect that, approach it like it’s the last game of the season.”
For fifth-year Duncan Robinson, he approaches it like its the last game of his collegiate career. In his first season with the Wolverines in 2015-16, they were bounced in the Round of 64. Then last year came Michigan’s surprise run to the Sweet Sixteen. Now, it’s about an Elite Eight appearance or better.
“The first few years — it’s kinda funny my first two years, I got my feet wet,” Robinson said. “But now in my final year, I don’t want it to end so hopefully we can keep it going as long as possible.”
As for Beilein, his attitude was mainly level throughout the evening. A man with little concern about the exact opponent or seed or location. He knows the danger of sleeping on a double-digit seeded team — his 14-seeded Richmond team topped No. 3 South Carolina in 1997.
His stoic outlook, of course, didn’t mean he wasn’t pleased. Beilein is happy that the Wolverines will play on Thursday instead of Friday — one less day his team has to wait after an extended break. The No. 3 seed, he believes, validates the progression his team experienced throughout the season.
But Beilein can only smile for so long before he drinks his 7:30 a.m. coffee tomorrow morning and game-plans for the Grizzlies himself.
“I try to answer most texts,” he said. “Any congratulations coming in will have to wait. I’ll be focused on Montana.”