The Wolverines have recovered quite nicely on the heels of their frustrating loss in Columbus over two weeks ago, grabbing wins at Minnesota, Purdue and at Illinois since then. Time will tell how much the Minnesota victory actually means, and Illinois seems to have returned to the land of mind-boggling inconsistency after apparently being away on vacation during the non-conference schedule. Regardless, here is where I say that winning on the road in the Big Ten is impressive regardless, and now we move on.
Northwestern comes into Ann Arbor Wednesday for an awkwardly early (for us Central Time folks) 6:30 ET start at the Crisler Center Arena Building. In case you somehow already forget, Michigan already took on the 'Cats and executed a smashing 94-66 victory, the first of three straight eviscerations to start the conference schedule.
Michigan had amassed 51 points by halftime, which would be a sizable halftime output for my Chicago Bulls, let alone a college team. To be fair, Northwestern was of course without guard Drew Crawford (who is out for the season), but he's been out since the 10th game of the season anyhow. The Wildcats also went without their second-leading scorer, Reggie Hearn. In an alternate universe in which Crawford and Hearn are healthy, Michigan probably doesn't win by 28 at Welsh-Ryan, even if they do still win by a lot.
After losing to Michigan and then by 18 at Minnesota, the 'Cats have gone W-L-W-L-W-L since then. This mercurial level of play is not as mystifying as it is for Illinois, because this is sort of what Northwestern does stretched to a hyperbolic extreme. Beat ranked Minnesota at home on Wednesday and lose by 15 on the road at Nebraska on Saturday...oh, you guys. #pray4B1GCats
Having played the Wildcats once already, you should probably be at least vaguely familiar with their personnel; here's my last preview post for the matchup on Jan. 3.
First of all, before I say anything else, we must acknowledge the existence of the SOBOCOP. The artist formerly known as Dave Sobolewski is back and thirsting for justice (Ann Arbor, Detroit, close enough); Michigan must be ready to defend its home floor in the face of what will surely be a furious onslaught from the SOBOCOP. SOBOCOP was just 3/7 from the field (1/5 from three) in the Jan. 3 contest. Despite the poor night from beyond the arc, he has actually been pretty good all season:
He also continues to be a 2011-12 Trey Burke point guard iron man, which probably contributes in part to the not so tremendous 17.7% turnover percentage (good for 48th in the conference). Anyway, I should probably talk about someone other than SOBOCOP.
Northwestern has other guys who play basketball for whom I haven't crafted nonsensical nicknames. Reggie Hearn returned from an ankle injury the game after the Michigan game; pre-injury, he averaged 4.1 three-point attempts per game, hitting 43%. Post-injury? Just 2.7 attempts per, a timespan in which he has hit just 21% of those treys. I'm not sure if the injury and those numbers are related, or if the beginning of the conference schedule is the real force at work here. Either way, Hearn's outside shooting is a country singer crooning about the old days and how he was once a better man and [insert other country music tropes].
I don't really know what to make of this development, but it seems that Kale Abrahamson (i.e. the guy with the funny looking shot) has been benched in favor of freshman guard Tre Demps. According to the box score, Abrahamson played one minute in the Nebraska game. So, it's possible that he got Vogrich'd.
Otherwise, Jared Swopshire (I am obligated to mention that he is a Louisville transfer) is a legitimately solid player for the 'Cats. Somehow, he pulled down 16 rebounds and scored 11 points against Nebraska on Saturday: a) in a losing effort and b) the 'Cats still lost the battle of the boards. "Thanks for the help, guys," Swopshire says, giving everyone in the locker room mean locks while lobbing passive-aggressive zingers at everyone within earshot.
Otherwise, Alex Olah might be the most intriguing and/or non-Northwesterny guy on the team. At 7'0'', the freshman Olah gives NU some elite size and a decent shot-blocking presence in the middle (5.0%, good for 13th in the B1G).
Otherwise, Olah's offensive effectiveness has been on a steady decline for some time now:
He's averaging fewer points per game (5.8 ppg) than Demps, who averages 14.8 minutes per game to Olah's 21.8. My guess is that, as the competition has picked up, simply being tall isn't quite enough anymore. At least early on in the first contest, Olah flashed some pretty awkward post moves. Post-Michigan game, Olah has averaged just 2.7 ppg.
- SOBOCOP. I could honestly just make every bullet this, but I won't. Unfortunately for the SOBOCOP, he doesn't have much reliable help other than Swopshire, and he'll probably get tired and commit some turnovers after having to check Trey Burke all game. Again, I wouldn't have thought it without actually looking at his stat line, but he can shoot the three. Force him to put it on the floor; Northwestern is not going to win this game or make it close with a barrage of two-point shots.
- IT'S A TRAP POSSIBLY. Okay, the odds are pretty slim that Northwestern wins this game at Crisler, but the valiant 'Cats did pull of a road win in Champaign, so they have shown the ability to win away from the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan. Michigan doesn't seem to allow itself to become ensnared in traps, but hey, I need to put something here.
- Big man rotation. This is based on nothing, but I'd guess that Jordan Morgan will take the evening off tomorrow. In a way, I'm sort of looking forward to a reprisal of Sunday's three-man rotation of Jon Horford, Mitch McGary and Max "Get Out The Way" Biefeldt. Hook shots from Horford, increasingly controlled play from CRUNK and more grit-astic work on the glass from Biefeldt is what I'll be looking for here.
All from right here, as usual:
- Sloooooow. Northwestern is 11th in the conference in possessions per 40 minutes during the conference season. Just the way we like it, except when Trey Burke starts playing like he's eaten thirteen straight little boxes of Nerds and Glenn Robinson III gets all dunky and such.
- Downtown. The 'Cats are first in the conference in three-point field goal attempts during B1G play and seventh in percentage made. When they're not going backdoor, the odds are pretty good that they'll be taking a three. In many instances, they will not hit said three.
- Charity. Strangely, NU is second in free throw attempts during conference play. I have no explanation for this.
Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.
Having been in school at Northwestern for over a quarter now, I like the place. I wish Northwestern well, and I hope they eventually get to shred the basketball equivalent of that monkey that the football team used as an avatar of past failures.
With that said, I will run around Deering Meadow eating mayonnaise sandwiches while declaring Pitbull the greatest artist of our time if Michigan loses this game.
Michigan possibly not having JMo (I'm writing this the night before, so this will need to be revisited come tipoff) and NU having Hearn this time around can only slightly help NU, but it isn't much given Hearn's lack of post-injury effectiveness. It would take fairly strong performances from Swopshire and SOBOCOP to even keep this close, and Olah will need to awaken from his Ent-like slumber if the 'Cats are going to threaten Michigan at any point in the second half of this game.
Michigan likely won't win by as many points as they did last time, but the game shouldn't be too close. Michigan 79, Northwestern 60.