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Preview: Michigan vs. Northern Kentucky

Northern Kentucky's Jalen Billups could give Michigan trouble inside, but the Wolverines are significant favorites against the Norse tonight.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Basics

Who: Northern Kentucky (2-5)

When: Tuesday, December 15th, at 7:00 p.m. ET (BTN)

Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.

SpreadVegas: -21.5KenPom: W, 79-61 (95% WP)

The Stage

Michigan proceeds to Part II of a four-game stretch during which U-M will close out its non-conference schedule by facing some of the worst teams in D-I basketball. Part I consisted of an 80-33 beatdown over Delaware State, who is 346th out of 351 teams on KenPom. Part II will be against #253 Northern Kentucky. Usually, there wouldn't be much excitement for a guaranteed game like this, but there is some intrigue because John Beilein confirmed that Derrick Walton, who's missed the last three games with a sprained left ankle, will be available to play. Though Walton won't start, his return should move walk-on Andrew Dakich, who burned his redshirt last game, back to the bench and keep the rotation at point guard between he and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. It will be interesting to see how much Walton plays because Beilein made the mistake of rushing him back last season when Walton injured his toe. Michigan needs Walton at 100 percent for the Big Ten season and should be fine if he missed this game.

The Opponent

This is Northern Kentucky's fourth season as a D-I program and first in the Horizon League after spending the first three in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Norse are 2-5 this season with only one win against a D-I opponent -- an 81-60 home win over #245 Norfolk State just two days ago. In the two games before that, though, they suffered road losses to #301 Eastern Illinois and #304 North Carolina A&T. Northern Kentucky does share a common opponent with Michigan: #9 Xavier. The Norse went to Cincinnati three days after Michigan hosted Xavier and hung with the Musketeers before falling by a score of 78-66. Northern Kentucky can put together decent efforts from time to time.

On offense, Northern Kentucky can pose a threat when it's able to get the ball inside. The Norse are 85th in two-point shooting (51.2 pct.) because 41.4 percent of their field-goal attempts are either layups or dunks (79th). This also likely explains why their offensive-rebounding rate (29.2 pct.) is about average (205th). However, when they're not getting to the rim, they're usually ineffective. Northern Kentucky shoots lots of threes (110th in 3PA%) despite having made only 32 percent of them (227th) and turns the ball over 23.3 percent of the time, which is one of the worst turnover rates in the country (338th). Also, NKU doesn't get to the line often (287th in FTR) or shoot well from there (326th in FT%).

On defense, Northern Kentucky also wishes that basketball was played within just five feet of the basket. Though the Norse permit teams to shoot 43 percent of their shots at the rim (306th), opponents have made only 52.2 percent of their attempts there (64th), which is why the Norse are 117th in two-point defense (46.2 pct.). But NKU struggles in almost every other area on defense. The Norse are 278th in turnover rate (16.6 pct.), 314th in defensive-rebounding rate (64.2 pct.), and 331st in free-throw rate (49.0 pct.).

The Personnel

Northern Kentucky is led by 6-foot-6 fifth-year-senior center Jalen Billups. Don't let Billups' size fool you. He's a beast inside, where he averages 14.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 2.1 BPG in just 22.1 MPG. Billups has made 64.8 percent of his twos because almost two-thirds of his field-goal tries are layups or dunks, of which he finishes an absurd 75.4 percent. He also draws fouls -- though his relatively low free-throw rate (38.9 pct.) suggests defenses are hacking him before he even goes up -- is great on the glass on both ends (8.9 OR% and 18.7 DR%), and swats away lots of shots (9.5 blk%). However, Billups usually won't play more than 25 minutes in a game because he gets into foul trouble frequently (7.1 FC/40) and he recovered from a potentially serious heart condition.

At point guard, the Norse go with 6-foot-2 sophomore Lavone Holland II, who averages 11.6 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 4.9 APG, and 1.3 SPG. Holland is like Derrick Walton in that he's one of the best defensive rebounders (20.6 pct.) on the team despite being the point guard. Holland also can get into the passing lanes and generate turnovers (2.7 stl%). On the other hand, though he's NKU's best distributor (28.5 ast%), he struggles offensively (79.6 ORtg) with his shooting (46.2 2P% and 26.1 3P%) and handling of the ball (28.2 TO%).

Alongside Holland in the backcourt is 6-foot-3 senior Tyler White, who averages 11.7 PPG and 3.7 APG. Despite being the team's second-leading scorer, White isn't an efficient shooter. He's connected on 13-of-33 twos (39.4 pct.) and 11-of-39 threes (28.2 pct.), though he's been a better shooter from downtown in his career (34.0 pct.). White's at his best when he drives into the lane and draws fouls that get him to the free-throw line, where he's made 86.4 percent of his freebies this season. Further, White's created more offense for others than usual this year (25.4 ast%) but turns it over too much (21.6 TO%).

On the wing, Northern Kentucky will start 6-foot-7 junior Cole Murray, who is a three-point sniper. After drilling 38.5 percent of his triples in his first two years, Murray is off to a scorching start this season, hitting 13-of-26 threes (50.0 pct.). As a result, he has 10.0 PPG. It should be noted that all 13 of Murray's made threes have been assisted, so don't expect him to create any looks off the dribble for himself whether it's beyond or inside the arc (4-of-11 2P). If teams stick to him on the perimeter, he will be shut down easily.

The fifth and final starter will be 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Jordan Garnett. He posts only 4.7 PPG and 2.7 RPG in 21.3 MPG because he's rarely used on offense (13.0 usg%) and doesn't do much work on the boards (6.9 OR% and 7.1 DR%). What usually happens when Garnett touches the ball is that he turns it over (26.8 TO%), but, in the few times when he has been able to control the ball, he's proven to be an effective scorer inside (9-of-13 2P).

Northern Kentucky will use four or five different reserves, but none average more than 4.0 PPG. If there's one to watch, it's 6-foot-8 freshman center Drew McDonald. He can score around the rim (57.1 2P%) and is a monster rebounder (14.2 OR% and 21.6 DR%).

The Keys

Bottle Up Billups: Jalen Billups is Northern Kentucky's best player and can provide a problem inside for Michigan's defense, which has had its troubles against interior scorers. However, this could be a matchup that Michigan can handle because the 6-foot-6 Billups hasn't fared as well against tougher and, presumably, taller teams. He's averaged 20.0 PPG against teams outside the KenPom top 150 and just 8.0 PPG against teams in it. Michigan can demonstrate that its interior defense has improved tonight.

Stick to Murray: Cole Murray is Northern Kentucky's only reliable outside shooter, and he can make it rain from there. In fact, Murray poured in 22 points against Norfolk State on Sunday because he drained 6-of-8 threes. Michigan will want to scrape down low to help its big men with Jalen Billups, but the defender covering Murray can't afford to do that. Murray won't score off the dribble. If Michigan sticks with him, he won't hurt U-M.

Force Turnovers: The best way for Michigan to prevent Jalen Billups and Cole Murray from scoring is to force turnovers, which is something that has bothered Northern Kentucky's offense all season. The Norse can't hang onto the ball or throw good passes for the life of them, so, if Michigan can ramp up the pressure, NKU won't handle it well.

Repair Zak Irvin's Shot: Zak Irvin has made only 7-of-38 threes (18.4 pct.) this season and has missed his fair share of wide-open ones. That simply won't get it done in Big Ten play. Irvin needs to get back on track from three soon. Tonight would be a great start.

Stay Healthy: This is the most important key of all. This three-week stretch of cupcakes is the time that Michigan needs to heal and return to 100 percent for the Big Ten season. D.J. Wilson (right ankle) is out of the walking boot but won't play tonight. However, Derrick Walton (left ankle) is available to play after missing the last three games. While it will be nice for Walton to get back into the flow of things, John Beilein can't be tempted to overwork him. Rushing Walton back from injury last season cost him the second half of his season. In an ideal scenario, Walton shouldn't play more than 20 minutes tonight.

The Prediction

Northern Kentucky is much better than Delaware State -- so don't expect a complete annihilation like on Saturday -- but the Norse still aren't anywhere near Michigan's league. Jalen Billups will get his inside from time to time, but Ricky Doyle and Moritz Wagner will use their four-inch height advantages to keep Billups relatively at bay. Plus, Derrick Walton's return will provide a needed boost on the defensive glass. Offensively, the Wolverines will do what they always do against inferior opponents: score at will.

Michigan 84, Northern Kentucky 61