MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies were heavy favorites the vast majority of conference play.
Now they’ll be big underdogs as the 14 seed taking on third-seeded Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament 7:50 p.m. MT Thursday in Wichita, Kansas.
While it’s a role reversal from what they’ve been accustomed to, there’s no alarm to alter their attitude or approach. Head coach Travis DeCuire has experienced eight tournaments as a player or coach, and has a simple message for his team.
“Our conversations are going to be, ‘Let’s go play the best basketball we can play and let’s be the Montana Grizzlies when the lights come on,’” the fourth-year coach said.
Ahmaad Rorie, a redshirt junior and first-team all-conference guard, is the only player to have participated in the NCAA tournament before. He played a total of five minutes in two games of the 2015 tournament as a freshman on Oregon; the Ducks lost as underdogs to eventual runner-up Wisconsin and Frank Kaminsky.
Back in the tournament and with an increased role, Rorie has a better sense of how to approach the game this time around.
“We don’t need to look at it like we’re underdogs,” Rorie said. “We just need to play like we’ve played other high-major teams. They have a good tradition, good history, good program. We just need to play our game the way we know.
“There’s going to be a large crowd, I’d assume. We need to act like we’ve been there before. Guys like myself, I’ve played in that type of game before, been to the tournament, just need to use my leadership to make sure I rally the guys and make sure they’re all ready to go.”
CBS Sports called Montana one of four “Cinderellas you should strongly consider,” but the Griz haven’t been a trendy upset pick.
Michigan, on the other hand, has been picked by national pundits to make the Final Four, if not win the tournament. The Westgate LV SuperBook listed Michigan as 10-to-1 odds to win, the fifth highest.
DeCuire said he won’t acknowledge or address the national discussion about the Griz with his team. He plans to reiterate the need for the team to “be loose” heading into the tournament.
“You want to go in with confidence,” DeCuire said. “We’re not the ones with the pressure. We’re not the ones with the expectations. We’re just going to go play our best basketball and have fun and enjoy this experience.
“For most of these guys, it’s their first time. And so, there’s a lot of parts to this thing before you even touch the floor that they’ll never forget.
“We’re still competing. We’re going to go play this game like a game in November with expectations to compete for a win. But at the same time, you never know if you’re going to have this experience again, so you’ve got to digest it and make the most of it.”
Jamar Akoh, a redshirt junior and third-team all-conference forward, has been a key cog in helping the Griz reach the tournament in his first year after transferring from Cal State Fullerton.
The 6-foot-8 forward will be tasked with trying to slow down and counteract Michigan’s size and physicality in the post. Even with the big assignment, he’s kept an even-keeled mentality.
“We expect to compete,” Akoh said. “We’re the underdog here. We haven’t been the underdog in a long time. A lot of the games we’ve played of late, we’ve been expected to win, to dominate, actually.
“Being the underdog here, I think it’ll kind of let us be loose. We’ll just go out there and see what happens. We can’t go out there thinking we’re going to win. We just have to go out there, do what we do and see what happens."
The Griz preached during Monday's practice that this week is a business trip.
They’d just prefer it to be an extended one.
“I think I’ve got a group that has been biting at the bit for this opportunity,” DeCuire said. “They’ve got a huge chip on their shoulder.
“We let a couple games slip away in November, December, let some games get away the last couple years. We’ve got a group that’s hungry for this opportunity, and this time it’s on national TV on a national stage as opposed to regional.”