At the beginning of November, the Michigan Wolverines were a preseason top-five team with a questioning fan base and a young, inexperienced team. Two short months and an undefeated non-conference season later, Michigan is now undoubtedly one of the best and most talented teams in the country, finding themselves entering Big Ten season as the only unblemished team in the conference. Tonight (7pm on ESPN2) they will travel to Evanston, Illinois to take on the depleted Northwestern Wildcats, the one major conference team that has still never made an NCAA Tournament. Here are your quick hitters for Michigan:
- Stay Disciplined: When you play against Northwestern, you know to prepare for the cut-heavy Princeton-style offense that Bill Carmody employs for the Purple and Black. Northwestern will rarely take ill-advised shots without exhausting the shot clock and lacks the athleticism to fast-break Michigan to death. What the Wildcats will do plenty of is shoot from deep and cut inside. The whole point of the Princeton-style offense is to get players in position to make easy baskets. With smart passes and positioning, Northwestern provides an immense challenge to teams that may be more athletic and talented overall but lacking in discipline. Luckily for Michigan, John Beilein is used to Carmody by now and has not had too much trouble with Northwestern, going 6-4 against them in his time at Michigan. With more talent, length, and athleticism at his hands, Beilein should have his team very well-prepared. Still, Michigan has struggled on the defensive end of the court, and with Northwestern shooting 38.6% from downtown as a team, there has to be some concern that the Wolverines will be sent back to Ann Arbor with their first loss of the season. Michigan needs to stay with Dave Sobolewski and Kale Abrahamson, who each shoot 35 percent or better from three, to avoid disaster. Alex Marcotullio is another shooter to watch out for, and even though the lefty is struggling this season while shooting only 31.8 percent from downtown, he can go off at any time.
- Wear them Down: John Beilein is known for sticking with a fairly concrete seven- to eight-man rotation, and this season is no different, as only five Wolverines average better than 20 minutes per game and two more play more than 10. In much the same manner, Carmody has been forced into a short bench this season after losing Drew Crawford, by far the team’s best athlete, scorer, and overall player, for the rest of the year to injury during the non-conference season and Jershon Cobb in the offseason. They’ll also be without current leading scorer Reggie Hearn who suffered a sprained ankle against Stanford. Northwestern will likely play at least Sobolewski and senior Jared Swopshire for 30-plus minutes while Marcotullio should also see significant playing time. Beyond that, a number of unproven Cats will get some run, but it’s really anyone’s guess as to which ones will stick. If Michigan can wear the unathletic Northwestern team down with the transition game, the Wolverines should come out on top. If Northwestern can successfully slow the game to a crawl and limit Michigan’s fast break, it could be very close. Michigan has obviously been great offensively, shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent from three, but their questionable defense gives Northwestern a shot if they can’t wear the Wildcats down. Northwestern will also look for a secondary option to get hot and be the hero tonight. Freshmen Alex Olah, Tre Demps, Abrahamson, and Mike Turner are all guys that have flashed potential but have not put it together. A big game from any of those would go a ways toward helping the upset cause.
- Quiet the Crowd: Even though this is already Michigan’s 14th game this season, tonight is just the second time the Wolverines will play a true road game so far. The Maize and Blue took down a mediocre Bradley team in Peoria back in early December by just eight points, something Northwestern will certainly be looking back on and looking to capitalize on with a rowdy home crowd. The Wildcats will need to prove their worth in Big Ten play if they are to have any prayer of dancing in March, and they would want nothing more than a conference-opening win over Michigan this evening. The Wildside student section will still be out on break, but the rest of the Northwestern faithful will pack the house to cheer on their team. Michigan’s alumni base in Chicago should help neutralize the noise a bit, but there is no doubt that Carmody’s team is going to give it their best shot. Nik Stauskas, who continues to lead the whole country in three-point shooting percentage, mentioned in yesterday’s media meeting that he relishes taking his talents on the road; he and his teammates must stay calm when Northwestern makes their runs if Michigan is to remain undefeated.
Prediction: Purdue’s win last night over 14th-ranked Illinois shows just how tough it is to win on the road in the Big Ten. If one thing is for certain, tonight’s Big Ten opener will be a dog fight. Neither team makes a ton of mistakes and both like to shoot the ball from deep, but in the end, Michigan’s superior talent will get the job done. Stauskas will quiet the crowd a number of times with threes while Trey Burke continues his candidacy for the Naismith Award with another 20-plue point outing. With Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s status still up in the air, both teams need to be prepared for any scenario. Wolverines pull it out, 77-68.