DES MOINES, Iowa — As Michigan stormed out to an early but indestructible lead Thursday night against Montana, the word of choice across social media was “boring.” By the time the Wolverines jogged down the tunnel at halftime with a 34-21 advantage that felt more comfortable than that, many back at home had already flipped to the evening’s more competitive action. Those inside Wells Fargo Arena surely wished they could do the same.
But in the moments after the eventual 74-55 win, when a reporter began to relay that description to assistant coach Luke Yaklich, he interrupted midway through the question:
“Nah, I freaking loved it.”
The thing is, Michigan likes it this way. Eventually, the reporter finished his question. Yaklich, in typical form, followed with a minute-long response detailing the minutiae of the Wolverines’ defensive performance — a smile glued to his face the entire time.
Eventually, he got to his defense’s contest rate — 90 percent — and had to pause. His smile had become too wide to speak through.
Elsewhere in the Michigan locker room, Yaklich’s energy wasn’t quite mirrored, but the attitude was. No one, not even this Wolverines team that ranks second in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, shares Yaklich’s childlike joy for defense, but they respect it. Even if that means winning “boring.”
“I don’t take this as a boring win,” said junior guard Zavier Simpson. “I actually take this as an exciting win. We got an opportunity to win the first game. That’s something that can be hard, especially with a team that doesn’t have as much hype that can be difficult to play.”
Throughout the locker room, the mood wasn’t celebratory as it was after blowout wins over Iowa and Minnesota in Michigan’s first two games of the Big Ten tournament. There was no distracting players as they answered questions or posing for triumphant pictures. But, unlike Sunday in Chicago, there were smiles and chatter.
It may not be an attitude that feels befitting of an NCAA Tournament win, but these Wolverines don’t need it to be. They know what comes next. Last year’s second-round matchup with Houston earned countless adjectives; boring was not among them. They also know what came before — a titanic, back-and-forth Big Ten championship game against Michigan State — and how that one ended.
“The Michigan State game was the Michigan State game,” Yakich said. “It was over. The NCAA Tournament for our guys who are used to making deep runs and having success in these type of games. It’s kind of tabula rasa there and we wiped the slate clean.”
This, a 15 vs. 2 game whose biggest storyline was that the same matchup happened last year, didn’t need any extraneous excitement. Within minutes, Michigan raced out to a 10-2 lead. By the 8:25 mark, it was 21-6. Montana didn’t hit double digits until 6:09 remained.
So when the Wolverines re-emerged from halftime, there was no need for a spirited team talk. Jordan Poole and Jon Teske shared a relaxed smile before dapping up and going to defend their respective assignments. Beilein paced the Michigan sideline, arms crossed, before clapping in his team’s direction. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
For a few minutes, the Wolverines failed to heed their coach’s advice. Montana, on a pair of baskets that were far easier than Beilein would have liked, cut the lead to eight. Then, the Michigan team of the first half returned. On a quartet of unanswered Simpson assists, the lead was back to 18.
“When you got a point guard who can just find your shooters, like (sophomore guard Jordan Poole), who, he didn’t have it going,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “So (Simpson) will tell him, ‘Hey, be ready, I’m gonna find you.’ And then those guys are locked in, ready to shoot. Same thing with (sophomore forward Isaiah Livers). Isaiah was open in the corner, he said, ‘Hey, be ready, I’m gonna find you.’ And that’s the type of point guard you want to play for.”
The rest of the night was back to boring, even if the Wolverines’ coaching staff refuses to view any game that way. As the teams played out the string on a long-decided game, coach John Beilein’s frustration rang through the arena with each wasted offensive possession. On defense, it was Yaklich’s voice filling the air.
But back in the locker room, there was no displeasure to be found. This — a win, regardless of style points — was all what the Wolverines wanted.
“We’re trying to do something a lot bigger than just the first game,” Simpson said. “But we can’t accomplish that without winning the game in front of us.”