MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies will head east as they play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
They earned a 14 seed and will take on Big Ten tournament champion Michigan in the first round at 7:45 p.m. Thursday in Wichita, Kansas. It marks the first appearance for the Griz under fourth-year head coach Travis DeCuire and the first time they’ve been sent out of the Western U.S. for an NCAA game, although they're technically in the bracket's West region.
“It’s huge because I wanted to do it my way,” DeCuire said of getting Montana back to the tournament. “I wanted to build the type of culture that I was comfortable with on and off the court. Sometimes when you fight for culture and how you want young men to be or become, sometimes you might end up with less talent down the road. We never gave in.”
The Griz are 26-7 overall and went 16-2 in Big Sky Conference play as they won the outright title in the regular season. They locked up an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament by winning the league’s tournament title on Saturday in Reno, Nevada.
Their game against Michigan will be the first-ever meeting between the two schools on the hardwood.
“I feel great, man,” Griz junior guard Mike Oguine said. “It's really hard to explain the feeling. It's unbelievable. Everyone dreams of doing this ever since they've been doing basketball. So to be here, it's a great feeling but we still know we have work to be done. We don't want to be a team that just showed up and wasn't ready to play. We want to make sure we're prepared to give our best against Michigan.”
DeCuire was hoping to earn a 13 seed but thought the team was hurt by letting some wins slip away. He also felt teams that got hot late in the season might have caught the committee’s eye and bumped the Griz down.
With nine slots left in the bracket reveal, it appeared the Griz could be a 13 seed and face Gonzaga in a rematch from the 2015-16 season, a 61-58 loss. The players swelled with excitement as they expected their name to be called, but the air was taken out of the room when UNC Greensboro was announced.
The excitement re-entered the room moments later when the Griz were announced as Michigan’s opponent. Players filmed the reaction around the room before shifting apps and reading up on Michigan and looking at stats.
“There was a lot of excitement,” said Griz senior Fabijan Krslovic, who later added that it felt “unreal” to finally make the tournament. “I think at the time we kinda knew it was going to be us. It was the last bracket to be revealed, and we thought we were going to be a 13 or 14 seed so we were really anticipating a matchup against Gonzaga in Boise, but when that didn't happen, we saw Michigan flash up as the three seed, and we were pretty sure we were going to be 14.”
It’ll be the Grizzlies' 11th NCAA tournament appearance in program history. They went 2-11 in their first 10 appearances and made the Sweet 16 under Jud Heathcote in what was then a 32-team tournament, losing to John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.
They’ve lost four consecutive tournament games. They beat Nevada in the first round of the 2006 tournament as a 12-seed, were eliminated in the next round, and lost their first game in 2010, 2012 and 2013. In those three years, they were a 14-seed once and a 13-seed twice.
“This is a rare opportunity,” DeCuire said of why fans should make the trip. ‘If you can afford to make the trip and you have the time to take off, the NCAA tournament is something special. And we’re not the only team that you’ll be there to watch.
"I remember being a little kid when regionals were at the Kingdome (in Seattle). I grew up going to those regionals, and I never forgot those moments, watching those games from the stands and then have an opportunity to play and coach in the NCAA tournaments, it was just a buildup. Watching these games is just as special as being on the floor.”