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Hoops Preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Michigan returns to the friendly confines of the Crisler Center, where they'll take on a struggling Northwestern squad under first-year head coach Chris Collins.

The SOBOCOP playing D
The SOBOCOP playing D
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Game: 7-7 (0-1) Northwestern Wildcats @ 9-4 (1-0) Michigan Wolverines

Date: Jan. 5, 2014

Time: 12:00 ET

Place: Crisler Center--Ann Arbor, Mich.



Michigan and Northwestern are two programs coming from very different places. John Beilein is firmly entrenched as the head honcho in Ann Arbor, whereas Northwestern is starting over with new head coach Chris Collins, ending a the Bill Carmody era after 13 years. The Wolverines struggled some in the non-conference schedule, but still come into this game with an okay 9-4 record, and, more importantly, a win in their Big Ten opener.

Meanwhile, things aren't so rosy for Northwestern. As someone who got a degree from NU not too long ago, I have a soft spot in my heart for Evanston, Northwestern University and Wildcats sports. With that said, given the data thus far, the Wildcats are in for a very rough Big Ten season.


As mentioned already, the Wildcats have had a rough go of it so far. Losses so far have come against: @Stanford, Illinois State, Missouri, UCLA, North Carolina State, DePaul and Wisconsin. Most of those are respectable --or at least understandable-- losses, but losing to ISU and DePaul is pretty, pretty bad.

ISU, of the MVC, currently sits at 7-6 (0-1), which includes a win against the DePaul that Northwestern couldn't beat. The Wildcats' loss against the Blue Demons was particularly frustrating, as: a) DePaul is not very good and b) they lost it on a Billy Garrett Jr. buzzer-beater.

Despite getting 23 points from guard Tre Demps, the Wildcats lost to DePaul, 57-56, in no small part due to the fact that they shot 32.1 percent as a team and turned it over 15 times.

Northwestern kicked off its Big Ten slate against the undefeated and rolling No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers on Thursday, a game that went just about as expected: the Badgers thumped NU, winning 76-49 in a game that really wasn't even that close. C Alex Olah did drop 23 points against the Badgers in a losing effort, but NU will not win many games with Drew Crawford going 3-for-11 from the field.

Luckily for Northwestern, Wisconsin appears to be that good this season, so a loss like that, while disheartening, should by no means be a crushing blow to fans' early opinions of Chris Collins's coaching acumen.


As has been the case for a while now, the 6-foot-5 do-it-all guard Drew Crawford leads the way for Northwestern. Crawford, who chose to return to NU instead of transferring elsewhere for a fifth year, averages 15.9 ppg and 7.7 rpg. His shooting percentage would probably be higher on a more talented squad (42 percent from the field overall), but he does shoot a pretty good 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. If there was any doubt, Crawford is the engine that makes the Wildcats go; unfortunately for him, it is other parts of this metaphorical purple and black car that fail.

Elsehwere, 6-foot-5 JerShon Cobb and 6-foot-2 Tre Demps provide additional scoring, averaging 12.2 and 10.5 ppg, respectively. Cobb had a tough time against the Badgers, shooting just 3-for-12 from the field, picking up just two boards and turning it over three times.

Demps was even less effective, shooting just 1-for-7 from the field. However, Demps has gotten into the double-digits against every other team of note on the schedule (Stanford, Mizzou, UCLA, NC State), not to mention his career-high 23 points against DePaul.

At point guard is Dave Sobolewski, or the guy I've been calling SOBOCOP for some time now. Sobocop, a 6-foot-1 junior from Naperville, has had a rough time thus far this season (are you sensing a theme?). Sobocop is shooting just 18.6 percent from beyond the arc on a team-high 59 attempts. When he fires from outside, that should be considered a win for Michigan's defense.

Sobcop is ninth in the conference in turnover percentage (23.6 percent), but had a tough time taking care of the ball against Stanford (4 turnover), Mizzou (4 turnover) and NC State (4 turnovers), in addition to five turnovers apiece against Brown and DePaul, more recently. Derrick Walton will have a couple of opportunities to tally a steal or two if he's alert and on his defensive game.

Seven-footer Alex Olah is an interesting player for the Wildcats, as you don't really ever picture Northwestern as a team having any sort of post game at all. Now, obviously we haven't entered the heart of B1G play yet, but Olah has improved on his 2012-13 numbers, averaging 9.1 ppg and 5.4 rpg thus far. Foul trouble limited him to just two field goal attempts and zero points in the heartbreaker against DePaul, but he bounced back against the Badgers to put up 23 and 6, by far the best game of his career.

Olah isn't Hakeem Olajuwon or anything, but he is a big guy who is improving, and Michigan's interior defense (and rebounding) hasn't exactly been airtight.

Game Keys

  • Let Sobocop shoot. While Walton et al will want to try and hit Sobolewski for a steal or two, keeping him in front is a much better strategy. I'm not saying Michigan should give him the Rajon Rondo treatment (i.e. play way off of him), but it probably isn't a bad idea. He can make some things happen on the bounce now and then, but he's clearly struggling from outside.
  • Limit Olah's second chance points. The 7-footer has scored in the double-digits with at least five rebounds in four of his last five games. In any case, he'll be a good test for Michigan's interior duo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan.
  • Backdoor cuts. With NU playing mostly man defense these days, as opposed to Carmody's 1-3-1, Michigan wings will have opportunities to slip behind their man to the basket. I thought Walton took a big step forward against Minnesota on Thursday vis-a-vis distribution and knowing when to hit guys with the ball; he has a chance to have a big afternoon in the assist department tomorrow. With Glenn Robinson III's status for tomorrow uncertain, Michigan's transition game takes a bit of a hit if he doesn't play. As such, Michigan will need to manufacture some points in the halfcourt, something that clearly hasn't been their forte.


If Robinson doesn't go then Michigan loses its best athlete, a defensive mistake eraser (see: Thursday's Minnesota game) and a transition offense maven. Michigan can win this game and score some in transition without him, but it will require more of that boring "halfcourt offense" stuff.

Like I said, I hate to talk bad about a school that I like, but Northwestern is just not very good at basketball, not to mention a team undergoing a major stylistic transition in going from Carmody to Collins. I think Collins will eventually bring the Wildcats to respectability, but there will be major growing pains, pains that will likely engulf the entire 2013-14 season.

If GRIII doesn't go, Michigan might be in for the standard first half malaise following an emotional road victory. If GRIII does play, well, things might get out of hand.

Either way, barring a complete collapse, Michigan should leave the weekend with its second Big Ten victory in as many games, probably of the 15- to 20-point variety.