Not many knew what to think about Michigan entering the 2017 NCAA Tournament. However, there are a lot of people who like the Wolverines’ chances of going further in the 2018 tournament than the Sweet 16 trip of a year ago.
Michigan might be the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, but coach John Beilein doesn’t want his team thinking too highly of itself as it prepares to face No. 14 Montana on Thursday (9:50 p.m. ET, TBS) in the first round.
“I don’t like being the hunted,” Beilein said Sunday following a tournament bracket watch party on campus. “We’re going to be the hunters. We’re going to continue to hunt. Those are days when we’re the so-called higher seeded team. I don’t want to say the favorite. We’re hunting. We’re going after it. We had a great taste last year of what it’s like to be in the NCAA Tournament. We can do more.”
Michigan basketball players went back to preseason mode last week as a means to impress that mindset upon them.
The moving of the Big Ten Tournament to New York City and Madison Square Garden brought about a schedule change during the regular season with a compressed league schedule. It also brought about an added week layoff from the championship game until the start of the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines will have had 10 days in between games by the time they tip off against Montana.
Beilein isn’t buying the extended layoff as an excuse.
“Oh, don’t worry, that won’t be a problem,” Beilein said. “They’ll see how we work. When we’re playing Alabama A&M, you can’t tell the difference between the Alabama A&M prep and the Michigan State prep, I can guarantee you. It’s the same amount of work on every single one of them. We have the exact same attitude. They’re used to that. I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
Michigan went through a pair of intrasquad scrimmages last week. Beilein called them “chippy”. Players didn’t disagree.
“The intensity was high, the competitiveness was high. We’re just trying to make it as game-like as possible,” said redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews. “Extremely chippy, but this is a chippy group of guys. Open gyms in July were very confrontational. Coaches like that environment. We like that environment. I feel like we thrive in that environment.”
This group has apparently found its balance of off-court friendship and on-court motivations.
“It was certainly chippy. Moe [Wagner] and I spend a lot of time around each other, so when we get on the basketball court we have a lot of choice words for one another, particularly when we match up on opposite teams,” senior guard Duncan Robinson said. “Him and I were going back and forth. Some of the other guys were getting involved as well. It was fun, honestly. It’s always fun to do that with your teammates because as soon as you get in the locker room all is good. We went out for a team meal afterwards but as soon as you step out on the court it’s fun to bring the most out of each other like that.”
This is Michigan’s third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and the eighth time the Wolverines have been in the tournament in Beilein’s 11 seasons. They were one of the final four at-large teams to get into the field in 2016, a No. 7 seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament last year, and now a No. 3 seed.
“It shouldn’t be a different mindset just because you’re do-or-die whether you’re a 2 seed, 3 seed or a 16 seed or 11 seed,” Wagner said. “You’re the same team. You’ve just got to show up. If not, you’re going home.”