Montana’s name popped up on the screen as the Michigan men’s basketball team’s first-round opponent and you froze. You knew nothing about the Big Sky Tournament champions. And you weren’t alone.
Michigan coach John Beilein’s initial reaction was equally tepid.
“Is Montana the Grizzlies?” Beilein said shortly after the bracket announcement. “I’m sure they’ve got a great team. They wouldn’t have 26 wins without a great team.”
And as Beilein and his staff are busy cutting tape and concocting a gameplan, The Daily reached out to Jackson Wagner — a reporter for the Montana Kaimin, the University of Montana’s student newspaper — to get the lowdown on the Grizzlies ahead of Thursday night’s 9:50 pm ET tipoff:
The Michigan Daily: For Michigan fans who maybe haven’t seen Montana play, who are the main two guys to watch out for and the skillsets they bring?
Wagner: I’d say the main two guys to watch out for is Montana’s backcourt. Mike Oguine is a hyper-athlete basically. He gets to the rim almost relentlessly. He’ll try, bacially everytime he gets the ball, to get to the rim, but he also has expanded his shot this year. He’s our Big Sky Conference Tournament MVP and the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. Just all over the floor. He plays with a ton of energy. And Ahmaad Rorie is the Oregon transfer that is easily the best scorer on the team when his shot’s falling. He’s had some off games, but when he gets hot, he’s a really, really good shooter and a really good ballhandler. He made the SportsCenter Top 10 with a crossover in the Championship game. Those two are the main guys to watch for, I’d say.
TMD: You wrote in your article the Big Sky Tournament run was improbable. How so?
Wagner: I think it was just kind of the nature of what happened. This is the best Montana team we’ve seen in awhile. I would say it’s the best since the mid-2000s when they beat Nevada in an NCAA (Tournament) game, but they just trailed in a lot of games and it seemed like everything was kind of going against them. We’ve been good with this coach, Coach Travis Decuire, but haven’t gotten it done in the Big Sky Tournament. So when things started to go against them, it looked like it was going to be another early exit. But they came back in multiple games, they were down 11 in the championship game, came back. That’s something we have seen from them all year — they’ve been a super good second half team. Decuire has made a ton of halftime adjustments where, they would go in down five or six and come out and win games by 15 points. It was something we had seen all year, but come tourney time it seemed like teams had made the adjustments in the first half and then Decuire would outsmart them in the second half to get those wins.
TMD: Was there a pattern to those adjustments?
Wagner: I think it was mostly defensive changes that he made. Eastern Washington has a player, Bogdan Bliznyuk — the Big Sky’s MVP of the regular season. He’s kind of a bigger guy, so Decuire started with the post on him to try to keep him outside, but then he was controlling the (championship) game basically as a point forward. So Decuire switched Rorie, who’s our smallest player, and typically not a great defender, onto him and it just threw everything that Eastern Washington was doing off. That’s kind of been what’s happened in a lot of games — defensive changes that he makes. They’re kind of balanced as far as where they’re at in rankings terms of offense and defense, but it’s the defense that’s won more games for them this year.
TMD: What are a couple strengths and weaknesses of this team?
Wagner: The biggest strength has been that anybody can be on on any night, which especially looking forward against a team like Michigan is going to be harder to do. But against Big Sky teams they basically have — one through seven — that anyone can go off for a 15-to-20-point game. Timmy Falls and Sayeed Pridgett both off the bench have been pretty dynamic as far as, if the Grizz are lacking scoring they just plug one of those two guys in and it seems like every time they get a response from them. The big guys down low, Jamar Akoh and Fabijan Krslovic, have both just been pretty efficient. They look to Akoh a lot more, but Krslovic is a high efficiency guy. He doesn’t get a lot of looks, but he’ll probably get close to 10 points in a game just on layups coming from people focusing elsewhere. One through seven being able to step up has definitely been their strength — they’ve failed in the past because of (isolation) and guys trying to take over games on their own, and that hasn’t happened this year.
The weakness, I would say, is just the size, kind of, and athleticism. 6-foot-8 is basically as big as we go, and not dominant down low defensively. There’s no real rim protector on this team. Krslovic and Akoh are both good defenders. Krslovic is a really smart defender, but not very athletic and not great at defending the rim. They’ll try to take a lot of charges but not get a lot of blocks, I would say.
TMD: A lot of talk in Michigan has been about the matchup problem with Michigan’s bigs who can stretch the floor. Is that a problem you agree with? Why or why not?
Wagner: I think, especially looking at Wagner, that’s a guy already with three inches on basically anyone the Grizz will put on him, and the ability to stretch the floor. I dont think that’s as huge of a thing, because we don’t have big guys that just sit in the paint and protect the rim. Both of them can move pretty well. As far as getting out to him on the three-point line, I think they’ll be OK. But just the sheer size. If Michigan decides to pound the ball into him, I don’t really see the Grizz having much of an answer for that.
TMD: What do you think is the formula for an upset?
Wagner: I think the formula basically is they have to be almost perfect offensively. I think defensively, Michigan is going to exploit the mismatch down low. Other than that, I think Oguine and those guys can kind of hold their own. They’re a good enough team defensively that I don’t think Michigan will be able to just beat them by scoring 90 points, like we see with some of these matchups. But for Montana, Ahmaad Rohrie is going to have to have a big day. They’re going to have to be knocking down the 3-point shot, which is something they’ve struggled with at times this year. Their starter at the ‘3’, Bobby Moorehead, hit a huge shot when they were down in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, but he hasn’t really proved himself from the 3-point arc. But I think that’s going to be basically what Montana needs — to get a few buckets down low early, to get shooters open, then they just need to be almost perfect shooting the ball.
Wagner: I think Michigan is easily the favorite. You guys are coming in super hot and have more talent and athleticism. I think it’ll be fairly low scoring, maybe like 66-52, Michigan.