Feb 21, 2012; Evanston, IL, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Trey Burke (3) controls the ball as he is defended by Northwestern Wildcats forward Davide Curletti (30) and guard Alex Marcotullio (back) during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Giglio-US PRESSWIRE
#13 Michigan 67, Northwestern 55
It's interesting to see where Michigan's come in these past few days. Against Ohio State, Michigan was the overmatched home underdog that was at the losing end of the rivalry (until they outplayed the Buckeyes for forty minutes and won). With the Northwestern game a couple of days later, the role was almost entirely reversed. It's surreal to see Michigan as the road favorite, the elite team coming into an opponent's arena to give them an opportunity at a win to save their season, instead of the other way around, especially after the last few years. Northwestern desperately needed a big win, it was one of their biggest games ever, they were at home, and Michigan was still able to do what those elite teams do and managed to win the game. (I realize that I've used the word "elite" twice already and while it's hard to look at Michigan's team and call them elite, they still have the resume to provide a marquee win like an elite team would. For all intents and purposes, that's why this game was so big for Northwestern.) Playing with a target on your back and getting your opponent's best shot on the road makes it tough to come away with a win, but Michigan still did it.
How was it this close in the fist place?
Two things, foul trouble and the 1-3-1 defense. The issues with foul trouble -- Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan were out of the last fourteen minutes of the first half, Blake McLimans also picked up two, and 6'6" Colton Christian had to play minutes at the five -- highlighted Michigan's lack of front court depth. When Smotrycz and Morgan were resigned to the bench with two in the first half, Northwestern went on a 28-13 run. I'm not sure that sitting both of them was the best strategy -- it wound up not mattering -- but Michigan's toast if they go up against a better interior team and have Morgan and Smotrycz out for a while. As for the 1-3-1, Michigan wound up making a decent percentage of their threes (14-38, or 37%), but took an absurd amount of their field goals from three (just over two thirds of them). Northwestern did a great job of bothering the Michigan offense, it bogged down and Northwestern's zone never broke down because of the inability of Michigan to pass the ball quickly enough. The 1-3-1 forces teams to hit shots, and fortunately Michigan made enough.
Well then, what did Michigan do well?
For starters, Michigan was able to contain and limit John Shurna's effectiveness for most of the game. Their other scoring option, Drew Crawford was only able to score six points and was limited because of injury. Davide Curletti and Reggie Hearn each scored in double figures, but since Shurna wasn't able to go off for 20+, Michigan did its job pretty well. 49-49 in regulation is a defensive battle, and Michigan's defense did well. Michigan also hit key shots -- the Wolverines were down to just under a 3% chance of winning (per KenPom) after a Shurna basket made it 47-43 with a couple minutes left, but Trey Burke saw his man go under a screen and nailed a three. Tim Hardaway had a poor day across the board (2-9 from three and a shockingly bad 4-10 from the free throw line) but made an even bigger three from the corner to tie it at 49. The three consecutive made threes in overtime from Burke, Zack Novak, and Stu Douglass essentially sealed the game. Michigan's overtime performance was stellar: 18 points in five minutes, 1.8 points per possession, and holding Northwestern off the board until the game was out of reach is impressive.
It's good that Michigan was able to force turnovers and get to the line, but let's just pretend that we weren't outrebounded by Northwestern.
What does this mean moving forward?
It means that Michigan has won the toughest game out of its stretch run and is in prime position to win a Big Ten title. Michigan State escaped with a win against Minnesota (an upset would have been phenomenal), but it's not a stretch to assume that they'll lose one of their two remaining games against Indiana and Ohio State. Michigan has to win out -- a senior day game against Purdue (who lost Kelsey Barlow and DJ Byrd), and road games against a collapsing Illinois team and a bad Penn State one are all that's left. Michigan has a very good chance of winning out, and this win was key in keeping Michigan in the Big Ten title race.
Oh, and Northwestern probably lost any chance of making the NCAA Tournament. Sorry guys, there's always next year.