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Preview: 10-7 Michigan vs. 10-7 Northwestern

The Wolverines return to Ann Arbor to take on the purple and black-clad squad from Evanston.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Who: 10-7 (1-3) Northwestern Wildcats

When: Saturday, Jan. 17, 8:15 ET (BTN)

Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Stage

Five games into the conference season, Michigan is already two-thirds of the way to its Big Ten loss total from last season (three). Things have changed.

Sitting at 3-2, Michigan needs to go 8-5 the rest of the way just to get to 18 wins, pre-Big Ten tournament. Last year's Minnesota squad was one of the so called "first four out" of the NCAA tournament; that team finished 19-13 (8-10) on a top 10 strength of schedule. Obviously, Michigan will need to finish much better than 8-10 in the league to get to 19 wins; it turns out losing to NJIT and EMU at home hurts your tournament chances (not to mention SMU, a solid team, but still a home game).

To put it bluntly: lose to Northwestern at home and it's definitely over.

Them

The Wildcats, like Michigan, come in at 10-7, albeit with a 1-3 conference mark. After starting 5-0 -- which included an overtime victory against Elon at home on Nov. 22 -- the Wildcats dropped their next three against Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech and at Butler.

After getting back on track against Mississippi Valley State, they fell at home against Central Michigan, a game I attended. In that one, the now 12-3 Chippewas put up 80 points, simply overwhelming the 'Cats all night. Four starters scored in the double digits, and the Chips were certainly fired up, shooting 58 percent from the field and 56 percent from three.

Then, the purple and black reeled off four straight wins, including a 51-47 victory at Rutgers, which actually looks like a decent win, what with the Scarlet Knights knocking off Wisconsin and playing Maryland tough on the road on Wednesday.

Unfortunately for Collins et al, things have been tough since then. The Badgers clobbered them at Welsh-Ryan, then the Wildcats suffered a tough overtime loss in East Lansing. On Wednesday, another game I was able to attend, the Wildcats once again couldn't find their defense, falling to the visiting Rayvonte Rice-less Illinois Fighting Illini. Somehow, the Cats went into the half down just 37-33, despite some scorching hot shooting from Illinois to start the game.

However, NU was never able to claw their way back out of a deficit, eventually falling 72-67. Guards Kendrick Nunn and Aaron Cosby went off for 25 and 19 points, respectively.

Having attended a couple of games at Welsh-Ryan and watched a decent bit of Northwestern basketball outside of that, my general impression is that this is a team that has taken a step back on defense -- which powered it to a brief run near the top third of the conference last season -- while having a bit more punch on the offensive end.

Personnel

Bryant McIntosh, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard from Indiana, leads NU with 12.4 points per game and 4.5 assists per game. He's a tremendous free throw shooter (86 percent) and is very good from beyond the arc (41 percent). The three-star has given Collins a much-needed boost on the offensive end. While I'm willing to guess that not many people outside of Northwestern circles know who he is, he's a solid player, and has performed admirably for a true freshman.

Tre Demps is NU's big shot/low efficiency guy, however. Demps averages 12.2 ppg, but shoots just 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three (he was a 34 percent three-point shooter last season). He's also a poor free throw shooter for a guard (64 percent). Inside NU had some words about NU's move to "hero ball" down the stretch against Michigan State, a brand of ball that usually means Demps getting the ball and trying to make something out of nothing. Sometimes, it works; a lot of times, it doesn't.

Many teams have that one guy who is often talked about using words like "enigmatic": big man Alex Olah is that guy for Northwestern. Despite his size, he often seems to get pushed around in the paint for rebounds and on seemingly easy put-back attempts.

With that said, Inside NU's Kevin Trahan argues that Olah has secretly been NU's best player, and I'm inclined to agree, even if Olah frustrates at times. Olah was certainly their best player against the Illini, when he took it to Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan to the tune of 14 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Now, Egwu has his own critics, but that is a tremendous stat line any way you look at it.

Rounding out the starting five are forwards Vic Law and Sanjay Lumpkin. Lumpkin is a familiar face (6.4 ppg, 36 percent from three), but Law, a four-star St. Rita product from the south suburbs of Chicago, was a big get for Collins, especially as he also had an Illinois offer. He also had offers from Stanford, Vanderbilt and Harvard; in other words, he's the ideal Northwestern recruit. At the Central Michigan game I attended, he edged out a kid from the crowd in a contest of "who can name more animated movies," so he's already my favorite Wildcat.

Outside of those five, JerShon Cobb, who returned from an injury in time for the aforementioned conference opener against Rutgers, has been relegated to the bench after being NU's best player last year. He averaged 12.2 ppg in 33.6 minutes per game in 2013-14. This year he's checking in at 5.8 ppg in just 21.9 mpg.

In perhaps the saddest development of all, the senior guard from Naperville, Dave Sobolewski -- who I once dubbed SOBOCOP back in my Holdin' The Rope blog days -- is averaging just 8.0 minutes per game after playing a more prominent role earlier in his career. On the bright side, he did aid the 'Cats against Illinois, at one point burying a pair of threes late in the game to give them a spark.

Game Keys

  • Freshman vs. Olah. Is a dominant performance against Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan something to extol from the top of a mountain? No, probably not, but Michigan's frontcourt situation isn't exactly...the best. Again, Ricky Doyle and Mark Donnal have shown flashes at times this season, but they've been few are far between. If Olah puts up a stat line like Wednesday night's, Michigan is in trouble.
  • On the ball defense. McIntosh and Demps can put the ball on the floor. Demps is more about finding his own offense, but McIntosh can distribute capably. Either way, allowing them to drive past Michigan perimeter defenders with any regularity will probably result in a lot of mid-range buckets and a serious probability of Olah recording 10+ rebounds.
  • But also...defend the three-point line. Noticing a trend? Yes, this might be the first all defense game keys section. For all of Michigan's offensive struggles, defense is where this thing has to start. Defense is a product of effort, much moreso than offense, and it's also a place to generate easy buckets or open transition looks from outside. However, if Michigan allows NU to fire away from outside, they might find themselves staring down another comeback effort. During conference play, NU ranks second in the league in three-point percentage (37.5 percent).

The Outlook

I don't even know anymore.

On paper, a home game at Northwestern once looked like a slam dunk. Now, not so much.

While NU's defense is not what it was last season -- they're currently third-to-last during conference play in points per possession allowed -- the offense has a bit more pop to it, even without the services of do-everything guard Drew Crawford. It's all relative, of course. A sobering stat -- during conference play, Michigan is a shade behind NU in points per possession, at 0.98 PPP (NU is at 0.99).

Like Michigan, NU doesn't do too well on the boards (13th in ORB%, 7th in DRB%). Whoever is less bad on the boards likely comes away with the extra possessions needed to squeak out a close win.

When two teams seem to be close to even, I'll almost always have to side with the home team, because this is college basketball. With the least bit of confidence: Michigan 57, Northwestern 55.