WICHITA, Kan. — Well, so that was …
“A little sluggish,” Michigan guard Jaaron Simmons chuckled.
“I mean, we know we can play better, and we will play better.
“But this game was kind of like our ice-breaker. We haven’t played in a long time. After this game, I think we’ll be able to go from the jump the next game.”
The Wolverines fell down at the jump — big man Moe Wagner literally hit the floor few seconds after the jump, technically, and got whistled for a walk — late Thursday night in the 2018 NCAA Tournament against Montana. But Michigan, the No. 3 seed in the West and a chic Final Four sleeper, recovered its sea legs in enough time to grind out an ugly 61-47 win over Montana, champions of the Big Sky Conference
“I just knew that from our start, somebody had to come in and be aggressive, be aggressive and try to make plays for myself and for others,” said Simmons, a senior transfer from Ohio University who chipped in 6 points — a big 6 points, all in the first half, that helped Michigan break out of an early funk — over 14 minutes.
“With us going down 10-0 [on the scoreboard], if we weren’t going to step up with our main players on the bench, it would be a whole different [deal].”
Thursday was … well, it was definitely different. Senior off-guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman got slapped with a foul 11 seconds into the contest. Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, whose physical style and take-no-B.S. approach had helped define Michigan’s defensive persona, was tagged with a pair of fouls before the game was 4 minutes old.
‘That’s a lot of confidence that Coach B has in us, and rightfully so.’
— Michigan G Eli Brooks on the Wolverines’ backcourt reserves
Enter Simmons, who hadn’t scored since posting a season-high 7 points at Maryland on Feb. 24.
Enter Eli Brooks, the freshman point guard who’d become a forgotten man after late December, with a timely bucket and a timely assist in relief of Simpson during the first period.
Enter Jordan Poole, the freshman off-guard who drained his first trey since that aforementioned Maryland tilt three weeks ago.
“It’s really helpful, when someone gets in foul trouble, that coach can just call on someone and it just doesn’t drop off,” said Brooks, whose Wolverines (29-7) advanced to meet No. 6 seed Houston on Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena. “So that’s a lot of confidence that Coach B has in us, and rightfully so.”
For all the Wolverines’ bruising and bricks and sloppy ball-handling (14 turnovers), for all the shot-clock malfunctions and general weirdness of Michigan’s NCAA tourney debut, coach John Beilein could hang his hat on two major positives:
1. The Wolverines proved they could tread water in a win-or-go-home tilt without Simpson for a half, and;
2. They proved they could work around rough shooting nights from Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner, twin pillars who wound up a combined 5 for 17 from the floor, 1 for 7 from beyond the arc.
“I mean, you can see they’re going to call [fouls] close in the NCAA [Tournament],” Beilein noted. “We haven’t had Zavier with 2 fouls at all, the entire season.
“So when he ended up getting in foul trouble, Jaaron Simmons came off the bench and was terrific … he came in and really performed well. He needs a rest. He hasn’t played a lot. So Eli Brooks goes in there and gets an assist. It was really good. Jordan Poole came in and hit a 3, which he had struggled [with] in [Madison Square] Garden. So I love what we got off the bench there.”
Montana’s back court gave Simpson a few spoonfuls of his own medicine, trapping and switching along the perimeter at every opportunity. The Grizzlies did a good job of taking Michigan’s starting guard combo out of the contest early. They were rather less successful at intimidating the Wolverines’ reserves.
“They were mixing up their traps and they went under some screens,” explained Brooks, who started 12 games earlier this season while Beilein mixed and matched at the point. “So it was just a matter of the ball handler reading what they were going to do. We were expecting them to do it, but it was a little different once they started doing it.”
Brooks hadn’t made a field goal since Feb. 21 at Penn State. Simmons hadn’t played that many minutes since the LSU game in Maui, all the way back on Nov. 20.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can really play,” Simmons said. “We’ve just got a group that’s very close, and together, so when somebody’s on the bench or somebody’s in the game, we’re cheering from the bench for them. And when it’s vice versa, they’re cheering for us. So we’ve all got confidence in each other and we’re going to help continue this on.”
One rope. One mantra. One goal. And one step closer to Los Angeles.