For the first time since the Fab Five graced the streets of Ann Arbor together, the Michigan Wolverines are on top of the college basketball world after another easy win at Illinois on Sunday. Tonight, Michigan will face the first revenge match of the year as they welcome Bill Carmody’s Northwestern Wildcats to the Crisler Center.
At the beginning of January, Michigan trounced Northwestern by 28 points on the road, but the Wildcats were without their steady senior leader, Reggie Hearn, and tonight Michigan will almost assuredly be without their own veteran in Jordan Morgan. With all eyes on Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Glenn Robison III, and the rest of the gang, college basketball fans across the country wonder, will Michigan continue to cruise through the Big Ten? Here are three quick keys to the game:
1. Stay Strong in the Paint: One of Michigan’s many advantages over Northwestern should be in its ability to get in the lane on offense off the dribble and feed the big men down low. Freshman Alex Olah has been serviceable for the Cats so far, averaging 5.8 points per game to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists, but he is still adjusting to the speed of college and should have his hands full with Michigan’s bigs.
With Jordan Morgan sitting out due to a sprained ankle sustained on Sunday, John Beilein will look to Jon Horford and Mitch McGary to pick up the slack. Both Horford and McGary did an admirable job replacing Morgan on Sunday along with Max Bielfeldt, combining to score 17 points and grab 14 rebounds in 39 minutes. Another strong performance from that trio should be plenty enough. Pay special attention to who gets the starting nod tonight as well; McGary has obviously been seeing the lion’s share of minutes between him and Horford, but that is partially due to the lingering knee injury Horford has had. My money will be on Beilein to give the older and more experienced Horford the start and a few more minutes than his counterpart as Horford’s game continues to improve.
2. Focus: With the way ESPN and everyone else have been hyping up Michigan’s huge game at Indiana this Saturday, one would think that the game tonight was a scrimmage, or perhaps that Michigan didn’t even have to play at all. As we’ve all seen before, however, we know teams are most dangerous when the focus of the opposition is dwelling in the past or looking forward to the future. Perhaps no team is more dangerous in this regard than Northwestern.
Because Carmody has taught his team the rarely-heralded ways of the Princeton offense, the Wolverines need to be on guard at all times, watching for backdoor cuts, unique switches, and a variety of defensive looks. If Michigan is not focused on the game at hand, it will quickly become apparent, because Northwestern will get open shot after open shot against any team that plods around. The focus tonight will all start with Trey Burke. The sophomore All-American has certainly been putting up remarkable numbers all year, but all the more impressive is how he has molded this team into his own by playing a key role as a vocal leader as well. Coming into this season, questions abounded about who would take over for Zack Novak and Stu Douglass as leaders both on and off the court. Burke has stepped up to the challenge in every way, and even though he doesn’t wear the captain’s ‘C’, everybody on the team is looking up to one of the shortest guys alongside them.
3. Check Reggie Hearn: Northwestern doesn’t need much more motivation than it already naturally has tonight; after all, the Cats are playing on the road in the Big Ten against the number one team in the country, the same team that also already pounded them in Evanston to start the conference season. That is plenty enough right there. To add onto the already towering pile, however, Northwestern will look to senior leader and former walk-on Reggie Hearn to draw out the fire in them. Hearn had to sit out the first matchup between these two teams because of an injury, but he is fully healthy and ready to go now. The 6’4″, 210-pound guard from Fort Wayne has averaged a hair over 13 points per game since his return from injury earlier this month, including back-to-back 20-plus point efforts against Illinois and Indiana, and has been getting to the line at a torrid pace as well, averaging 7.7 attempts from the charity stripe per night in that same time period, with not one single game below four freebies. Hardaway, Jr. and Nik Stauskas will likely draw the tall task of defending Hearn throughout the night. They would be wise to stick to him closely and leave him off the line, where he has been doing the majority of his damage. Hearn is easily Northwestern’s best slasher, so if Michigan’s D can get the job done, Beilein will be pleased.
Prediction: All truth be told, Michigan could and should win this game with one eye on the calendar, but Beilein, Bacari Alexander, Lavall Jordan, and Jeff Meyer will do everything they can to keep this team from losing focus. A couple mistakes here and a couple mistakes there can be the difference between breezing through the second half and sweating it out at the line by the end of the night. I expect Burke and Hardaway, Jr. to lead the team vocally and statistically again tonight, combining for 35 points and 14 assists. Horford gets the starting nod and puts up double digits for the first time this season in a 78-63 Michigan win.