Who: Northwestern Wildcats 14-15 (5-11)
When: 9 ET (BTN)
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena -- Evanston, Ill.
As I mentioned in the postgame recap of the Maryland game on Saturday, a .500 Big Ten record is on the line for the Wolverines as they hit the floor against Northwestern and Rutgers to close the season.
Now, yes, a .500 finish would fall well below expectations for the season, but given the state of things, 9-9 would not be the worst result in the world (even in a fairly mediocre iteration of the Big Ten).
Northwestern, meanwhile, was hoping to build upon what was at times a successful and plucky 2013-14 Big Ten season, which included road wins at The Barn, the Kohl Center and Indiana's Assembly Hall. Alas, second-year head coach Chris Collins and the Wildcats haven't taken advantage of a weaker Big Ten, instead coming into this one with a 5-11 conference record.
With that said, prior to a 26-point thumping at the hands of the Illini in Champaign on Saturday, the Wildcats had been on a four-game winning streak, their best such conference streak since 1967. The streak began with an overtime win against Iowa, yet another win at The Barn, a home win against Penn State and a home win against Indiana, holding the Hoosiers to 36.5 percent from the field in the process.
After embarking on a 10-game losing streak that started with an 81-58 loss against Wisconsin and continued into February, the Wildcats seemingly found a spark with that win against the Hawkeyes.
That spark was summarily put out in Champaign, but the Wildcats will assuredly be looking to get that taste out of their mouths when a Michigan team they probably should have beat the last time around comes to town.
As mentioned above, the Wildcats have pretty much had two antithetical Big Ten seasons: the 10-game losing streak and the four-game winning streak (plus Illinois).
With that said, that's a little reductive. If you look at the losses beginning Jan. 11, Northwestern lost to Michigan State by seven in overtime, Illinois by five, Michigan by two, Ohio State by two and Maryland by one. You know, it's all about learning how to win, getting out there and executing, giving 110%, playing for your teammates, etc. etc.
Sarcasm aside, Northwestern did find a way to turn things around and rekindle the magic of their brief 2013-14 run.
No use in spending too much time here (again, check the last preview for a more complete rundown).
Tre Demps leads the way in points for the Wildcats (12.8 ppg), but Northwestern's most efficient player is Bryant McIntosh, the freshman from Indiana. In the big win against Indiana, however, Demps scored 23 on a surprisingly efficient 8-for-12 from the field.
Demps can go off like that, but, more often than not it's better to let him take most of the shots he wants to take -- he's a 41 percent shooter this season (33 percent from three).
Big man Alex Olah, albeit frustrating at times, is the key for the Wildcats. When he plays well, Northwestern tends to find itself in games. Against Indiana, Olah scored 17 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. He still struggles to finish through contact, but he puts up numbers and will provide a big test for Ricky Doyle et al. Michigan can't afford to let Olah repeat his performance in Ann Arbor, when he put up 22 and 7.
Four-star freshman Vic Law is long and rangy but still learning the ropes; but, 7.0 ppg and 4.9 rpg isn't bad for a freshman. He's a 33 percent 3-point shooter.
JerShon Cobb has been sidelined of late with an injury -- he scored 13 on 5-for-12 shooting at Crisler on Jan. 17. However, indications are he'll play tonight, Northwestern's Senior Night. That would be a key addition to the lineup for Chris Collins and Co.
Sanjay Lumpkin is a low-usage forward with strong shooting percentages, and the same goes for Nathan Taphorn. Scottie Lindsey, a 6-foot-5 freshman small forward, has seen his minutes go up as the season has gone along). He shoots 36 percent from three, so, a solid outside threat.
- Olah, OlahOlah Olahhhh. If Michigan lets the Northwestern big man fill up the stat sheet once again, the Wildcats likely win this time around. Olah isn't the most graceful or physical of players, but he does have some effective post moves and just finds ways to score.
- Don't forget to water the offense. Once again, a late-half drought killed the Wolverines at Maryland on Saturday -- in order to come away with a road win tonight, Michigan has to find a way to limit those. Northwestern is 8th in the conference in points per possession -- not exactly a powerhouse. Michigan, however, is 11th.
- Get in the car and drive. This is a game in which I don't think the Wolverines are overmatched, athletically. When the opening is there, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins need to be aggressive -- there's a reason they lead the team in Sports Center Top 10-worthy plays this season (of course, the most important stat of all). Interestingly enough, Northwestern's bread-and-butter last year, defense, has seemingly evaporated, as the 'Cats are dead last in points per possession allowed. In any case, the odds are good Michigan will need to score more than the 56 they managed in Ann Arbor if they are to sneak away from the blustery lakefront with a win.
Well, the season is almost over, Michigan isn't going to the tournament but I am going to this game tonight -- so my outlook is bad Welsh-Ryan nachos and maybe a pretzel.
As for the Wolverines, this is a game they can win, obviously. Northwestern had been playing well until Saturday's debacle, and this is a Michigan team that for stretches of games plays almost as effectively as if all five players on the court brought pillows to take in-game naps (maybe that's why the 1-3-1 zone isn't working).
This is another one of those coin flip games. It would be nice to see a win in person, but I can't go against my stated rule when it comes to coin flip games: home team gets the nod. Northwestern 62, Michigan 56.