NCAA tournament preview: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 14 Montana

NCAA tournament preview: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 14 Montana

John Beilein’s teams always are known for offense. And this year’s team is no different. But what makes this year’s club a cut-above is how it defends. Couple that offensive acumen with tenacious defense and terrific coaching, and you can see why the Wolverines could be poised for a deep run in March.

[ MORE: View the full 2018 NCAA tournament bracket ]

Junior Moe Wagner is the biggest star, an effective inside-outside weapon who plays with passion. But it’s the guards who make this squad go. Sophomore Zavier Simpson is emerging as one of the conference’s top point guards. He is a tenacious defender. Fellow guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is good on both ends of the court. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews attacks from the wing along with freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers. And don’t forget about Duncan Robinson, a thiny-thin shooter extraordinaire.

The Wolverines are one of the hottest teams entering the Big Dance, winning their last nine games. Add it all up, and Michigan (28-7 overall, 13-5 Big Ten) is a trendy pick to advance to the Final Four a year after making the Sweet 16 and coming close to beating Oregon to reach the Elite Eight.

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 14 Montana

(Thursday, 9:50 p.m. ET, Wichita, Kan., West region)

John Beilein NCAA record: 19-11. NCAA runner-up in 2013

Last NCAA appearance: 2017, lost to Oregon in Sweet 16

Key player: Zavier Simpson. Yes, Moe Wagner is the face of the program. But Simpson is the vital cog. The sophomore is one of the Big Ten’s top defenders. and he showed it in the Big Ten tourney when he locked down some of the conference’s top guards. Plus, Simpson brings juice on the offensive end, too. His stats don’t stand out (7.5 ppg; 3.1 rpg; 3.6 app), but Simpson does a bit of everything and makes those around him better.

Key number: 63.5, points allowed per game by the Wolverines. That’s No. 1 in the Big Ten. Beilein’s teams typically aren’t known for their defense. It’s the offense that often carries the water. But this edition plays the best defense yet of any Beilein squad in Ann Arbor. This is a quick, long and athletic team.

Know Montana: Former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcotes led Montana for five seasons and took the school to the Sweet 16 in 1975 before arriving in East Lansing. This is traditionally one of the better mid-major programs in the nation. And this season was no different. The Grizzlies (26-7) won the regular-season and league tourney titles in the Big Sky. Montana brings a six-game winning streak into the game. The Grizzlies are making their 11th NCAA Tournament appearance, owning a 2-11 record. The program was last in the Big Dance in 2013, earning a No. 13 seed and getting whipped by No. 4 seed Syracuse, 81-34. The last time Montana won an NCAA game? It was 2006, when as a No. 12 seed the Griz beat No. 5 seed Nevada, 87-79, in the first round. Montana has three players averaging double-figures in scoring, led by G Ahmaad Rorie at 17.3 points per game. G Michael Oguine is averaging 15.7 points, while F Jamar Akoh is averaging 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds. He is a bull. The winner of this game will meet the winner of the No. 6 Houston vs. No. 11 San Diego State tilt.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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