Previewing Northwestern and one of its Last Chances

Three days after upsetting Ohio State and staking a claim as a Big Ten title contender, Michigan takes to the road to face the Northwestern Wildcats who, as you might have heard, are once again on the endless quest to finally reach the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern finds themselves squarely on the bubble at 16-10 (6-8 Big Ten) and are within the last few teams in or first couple teams out on nearly every mock bracket. This puts Michigan in an interesting spot; the Wolverines go from home underdogs in need of a key win to the road favorite in a hostile environment that needs to simply hold on for dear life. It's interesting that there's such a shift in mentality between these two games, and it will be interesting to see how Michigan responds to a dangerous team (the Wildcats did beat Michigan State back in January, after all) on the road. Michigan just won a huge game for Michigan, and now they have to win a huge game for Northwestern.

In the last meeting between the two back on January 11, Northwestern was unable to capitalize on Michigan's worst shooting performance of the year and lost a double-digit second half lead in Ann Arbor. Michigan wound up winning the game 66-64 in overtime -- the Wolverines' ability on the offensive glass (!) and Northwestern's turnovers kept this game from being a pretty bad home loss. Northwestern wisely played John Shurna at the five for large stretches of the game, and while this hurt the Wildcats on the boards, Shurna capitalized on the defensive confusion to score 21 points on 9-15 shooting. Drew Crawford, the other Wildcats star, scored 20 points and no other player scored double digits. Trey Burke was 5-17 from the field, but was 8-8 from the free throw line and scored 19 points, and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 19 of his own and made 5-9 from three. Zack Novak was out for long stretches of the game with foul trouble.

Since I'm a stats nerd, here is where each team ranks in the Four Factors from Big Ten Play:


Michigan
Offense

N'Western
Offense
Michigan
Defense


N'Western
Defense

Effective FG % 4 1 5 10
Turnover % 2 4 1 7
Off. Reb. % 10 12 8 12
Free Throw Rate 12 3 1 7

Offensively, Michigan should do well against Northwestern -- the Wildcats currently are the 11th best defense in the 12 team Big Ten -- and Michigan's strengths, shooting the ball and not turning it over, play right into Northwestern's weaknesses. (2 point FG % will be a huge factor, Michigan is ranked fifth nationally in two point shooting and Northwestern is 236th nationally at defending shots inside the arc). Northwestern's offense has been carrying the team all season, but Michigan's defense has been a pleasant surprise in Big Ten play. The Wildcats shoot the ball very well, don't turn it over much, and get to the line often. Michigan's defensive performance against Northwestern in the teams' previous meeting was the sixth best of any opponent in 26 games. Northwestern simply is a terrible rebounding team, so Jordan Morgan should excel again.

Over the weekend, John Shurna became Northwestern's all-time leading scorer. The lanky, 6'9" forward with a lethal outside shot that can be generously described as hideous finally cemented his place among the best players ever to don a Wildcats uniform. Drew Crawford isn't a slouch himself; he's not as efficient as Shurna is, but they're both high-volume, decent efficiency players who can score in bunches from outside or around the rim. Dave Sobolewski is Northwestern's starting point guard (a true freshman who replaced all-everything Juice Thompson) and is a low usage player who still puts in plenty of minutes running the Northwestern offense. Reggi Hearn, Davide Curletti, JerShon Cobb, Luka Mirkovic, and Alex Marcotullio are all role players who provide a scoring spark here and there for the Wildcats, but Shurna and Crawford shoulder most of the offensive responsibility for the Wildcats. Northwestern runs an offense similar to ours -- plenty of back cuts, off the ball screens, and three point shots -- and trots out a 1-3-1 zone much more often than we do.

Some people have been saying that this is the biggest game in the history of Northwestern basketball, and while that might be a bit much, the Wildcats have a ton to play for. A marquee home win would give them enough of a boost to get back to the favorable side of the bubble picture (they do also have a home contest against Ohio State remaining, but they lost by a ton in Columbus). Michigan still has lots to play for as well -- seeding and a Big Ten Title -- so focus will be imperative in staving off of the upset.

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