Michigan-Northwestern Preview: Enter the Coliseum

Bill Carmody pleads with the Fates to just give him a freakin' break for once. - David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The undefeated Wolverines kick off their Big Ten season against a debilitated Northwestern team in Evanston. Despite injuries to the Wildcats' top two scoring options, the Wolverines cannot afford to bring the underwhelming defensive effort they've shown at times this season or this could be more uncomfortable than it needs to be.

Exposition

[ED: Should have made this clear --I wrote this last night-- but Tim Hardaway Jr.'s status for this game was questionable as of yesterday, and, according to Eamonn "gimme all your letter N's" Brennan, THJ will be out tonight. I'm not sure if that's conjecture or not, but don't be surprised if Tim doesn't play. Regardless, that doesn't change the calculus of this game too much.]

I'm not sure why I'm feeling all Gladiator-y with these last two post titles, but I guess that's what happens when you watch your team go up against Jadeveon Clowney.

In any case, writing a preview for a basketball game against Northwestern after Tuesday's heartbreak is kind of like a cold glass of milk after eating 1 or 2 or 12 ghost peppers. It is a soothing, comforting thing indeed.

By now you probably know that Michigan is really good. Football season is over, so if you're one of those strange "I only care about football" people, this is a good time to start paying attention.

This iteration of Michigan basketball is easily the best team since the Fab 5 [REDACTED], and it's getting to the point where you have to wonder if these guys might not be better; someone a little older than me can probably more accurately make that assessment.

Michigan dispatched competition of varying levels of quality en route to a 13-0 mark heading into its first Big Ten contest tonight in Evanston at Welsh-Ryan Arena. As a current NU student, I would have gone to this game if I wasn't a MORAN and had planned my return flight to Chicago accordingly. Alas. Sorry Northwestern, but I cannot root for you on this day.

The Opponent

The Wildcats' struggles to get into the Big Dance have been well-documented. Take John Shurna and his chest laser of a shot out of the equation and the outlook for the 2012-13 'Cats was grim from the start.

With the injury of star senior guard Drew Crawford for the season and, more recently, senior Reggie Hearn. Crawford and Hearn are/were Northwestern's top two scorers, averaging 13.5 and 14.5 ppg, respectively. Carmody's words give off a decidedly pleading Grapes of Wrath sort of tone here:

Northwestern (9-4) had trouble scoring earlier this season when Carmody's entire roster was healthy. With Drew Crawford out after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, and Hearn sidelined, Carmody is now without his top two scorers.

"Where are we going to get the scoring from?" Carmody asked. "Three weeks ago, we had Drew and Reggie and they gave me 30 a game. Who are you going to get it from?"

As such, a tournament bid seems just about impossible. However, after Northwestern took Michigan to the wire twice last season, the Wolverines cannot afford to coast. Yes, Michigan has easily the best team its had in the Beilein era, but the Wolverines haven't exactly had an easy time in Welsh-Ryan of late. The Wolverines snagged overtime wins last season and during the 2008-09 season while taking a pair of losses in 09-10 and 10-11. Oddly enough, the Wolverines did pick up a 10-point win in Evanston in 2007-08, a lonely W amid a sea of truly horrifying basketball in Beilein's first season in Ann Arbor.

The Wildcats are currently No. 104 in RPI, a spot ahead the confoundingly dysfunctional Texas Longhorns

Schedule-wise, the 'Cats are 9-4 heading into the season, their losses being: a 20-point loss against Maryland in the Challenge, an unfortunate (and ugly) 50-44 defeat against UIC, a 9-point loss against Butler and a 2-point loss against Stanford. On paper, that doesn't look so bad, but given the strength of the B1G, NU needed to come out victorious in at least two of those games.

Otherwise, the 'Cats have dispatched your standard array of chumps, with somewhat notable wins against Baylor on the road (a few days after Baylor beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena) and a ridiculous 55-31 (!) win against now 8-4 TCU.

Anywho, sans Hearn and Crawford, my favorite Wildcat, Drew "SOBOCOP" Sobolewski becomes NU's leading scorer at the point guard spot. He's averaging 11.3 ppg --up from last year's 8.3 ppg-- and is shooting significantly better from the field overall (47%) and has been excellent from beyond the arc (49% on 49 attempts thus far). The SOBOCOP is a tough, gritty player (I'm not even being ironic here), and he is capable of doing some damage if Michigan's transition and half court D is redolent of a lazy day napping in a hammock (which it often has this season).

Louisville transfer 6'8'' F Jared Swopshire becomes option No. 2, averaging 8.8 ppg and 6.0 rebounds per game. He's shooting an all right 49% from two but just 31% from three. Based on what I've seen, he would have made for a nice No. 3/4 offensive option, but I'm not really sure he's a guy that can really hurt Michigan. With that said, two of his best games this season came against Baylor (12 points, 7 rebounds) and TCU (15 points, 5 rebounds).

After that, an army of freshmen/RS freshmen make up the rest of the regular rotation, save for 6'3'' G Alex Marcotullio. Somewhat shockingly, NU has a pair of 7-footers, although one is the very raw and little-used Chier Ajou.

Freshman C Alex Olah should provide a nice challenge at the rim for Michigan's bigs, who have sometimes had difficulties finishing at the basket. Olah is averaging 7.3 ppg and 1.3 blocks per game; his 6.6% block percentage puts him at 9th in the conference. Hopefully Michigan dispenses with the pleasantries and hits Olah with an "adios" at the rim instead of an "Olah" (ha ha, jokes!). Also, despite being really tall, Olah is not a very effective offensive rebounder, FWIW (5.4%, 50th in the conference).

RS freshman guard Tre Demps, freshman F Kale Abrahamson and RS freshman F Mike Turner round out the rest of the double-digit minute averaging 'Cats.

FWIW, the 'Cats went nine deep against Stanford, but that was with Hearn available. With him out, I'd expect the lineup to look like this (this is conjecture on my part: 1) SOBOCOP 2) Marcotullio 3) Abrahamson 4) Swopshire 5) Olah. If you're keeping track, that's two guards, a 6'7'' guy, a 6'8'' guy and a 7-footer. For Northwestern, that's not terrible size in the frontcourt.

The Gameplan

With 281 attempts, Northwestern is currently 3rd in the Big Ten in 3-point attempts. Simply put, preventing NU from getting to their spots and getting those open looks needs to be priority numero uno. The 'Cats are not going to beat Michigan with a barrage of mid- to long-range twos.

Point the second: backdoor cuts. With so many youngsters in Michigan's rotation, it's not hard to see the Wolverines giving up some easy buckets this way. This is especially a concern for a guy like Nik Stauskas, whose swag does not yet extend to the defensive end of the floor. When a guy dribbles over to a wing, Michigan should always be cognizant of the backdoor cut.

Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary will need to be able to finish around the basket; I don't know that Olah is the shot-blocker that, say, Da'Shonte Riley, Pitt's Steven Adams or KSU's Jordan Henriquez were, but he is solid enough to merit consideration.

Miscellaneous Stats

  • You can't stop the SOBOCOP. Sobolewski is 4th in the conference in minutes and minute percentage, 4th in free throw rate, 7th in assist percentage and 8th in 3-point percentage. Sure, a NU team sans Shurna, Crawford and now Hearn sort of forces Sobolewski to attempt to fill that production vacuum. Regardless, the SOBOCOP has very quietly been having a nice sophomore season.
  • Lake the Ball. Every once in a while, the 'Cats of the hardwood like to take this football tradition of "laking the posts" to Welsh-Ryan, demonstrating an occasional proclivity for just sort of flinging the ball into Lake Michigan. The 'Cats are 8th in the conference in turnover percentage at 17.5% (306th nationally). Sobolewski himself is 48th in the conference in turnover percentage at 16.7%.
  • Molasses sandwiches for everyone. Not that the non-conference slate subjected Michigan to too many "fast" (i.e. high volume of possessions) teams, the beginning of the Big Ten schedule is the basketball equivalent of flipping to the cool side of the pillow. The Wildcats are similarly slow, sitting at 10th in the conference and 292nd nationally at 64.3 possessions per game (Michigan is even slower at 64.9 possessions per).

Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.

If Crawford and Hearn were operational, this would have been an interesting conference opener. Michigan has had trouble with Crawford in the past and the Wolverines have been far from dominant at Welsh-Ryan, even when it has won.

Even with Crawford and Hearn, the Wildcats scored just 44 against UIC. Sans both, they scored just 63 against RPI No. 241 Brown on Dec. 23. Needless to say, scoring points will be an issue for Northwestern all season.

The only way Northwestern keeps it close is if they find success spotting up outside. As mentioned, the 'Cats shoot a lot of threes, but they also make a lot of them (38.4%). The Princeton offense is always a thing to be prepared for, but it's not like Beilein doesn't have experience with that. Still, with so many freshmen on the floor playing in their first conference road game, Beilein need to be wary that these guys don't lose the plot on the defensive end.

Assuming that THJ doesn't fall in love with the three like he did last year in Evanston, the bigs don't completely forget how to put the ball in the basket from two feet away and NU's halfcourt offense doesn't become a backcutpalooza, Michigan should win this fairly easily in preparation for a decent test in Sunday's home opener against Iowa.

Score: Michigan 70, Northwestern 54.

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