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Preview: Michigan Basketball vs. Northwestern

Michigan is on the bubble, and tonight's game against Northwestern is a must-win.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Basics

Who: Northwestern Wildcats (17-10, 5-9 Big Ten)

When: Tuesday, February 24th, at 7:00 p.m. ET (BTN)

Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.

Spread: Vegas: -7 | KenPom: W, 72-65 (77% WP)

The Stage

Tonight, Michigan will continue to fight for its NCAA Tournament hopes against Northwestern -- the only high-major basketball program never to win that war. As yesterday's Bracketology Roundup indicated, Michigan is a bubble team. Michigan is a bubble team that is in the field in most brackets -- usually as a #10 seed -- but a bubble team nonetheless. After road losses to Ohio State and Maryland last week, the Wolverines are nearing the cut-off line, with some bracketologists even placing Michigan in their First Four. If the Wolverines want to avoid sweating through Selection Sunday, earning two more regular-season wins would go a long, long way to achieving that.

And that makes tonight a must-win for Michigan. Not only will a home date with Northwestern be Michigan's best chance to add a regular-season win, Michigan simply can't afford to have its worst loss of the season right now. If Michigan wins, U-M will remain on the right side of the cut-off line. If Michigan loses, though, U-M falls out.

Also, Michigan likely will be without Caris LeVert again, who's not expected to play.

The Opponent

The Big Ten schedule was a rude awakening for Northwestern. The Wildcats opened with a 12-1 record thanks to having one of the softest non-conference schedules in the country. They didn't have one good win in the bunch, and that didn't change once Big Ten teams started taking the same court as them. Northwestern is 5-9 in the Big Ten and has won only two of its last nine games. Those two wins? Minnesota and Illinois at home.

Offensively, Northwestern is 85th in adjusted efficiency (108.5) thanks to its ability to shoot the ball (77th in eFG%) and keep possession of it (43rd in TO%). The Wildcats are at their best when they get the ball inside the arc for points (49th in 2P%), but it's not something that they do frequently enough. Instead, they tend to launch lots of three-pointers (36th in 3PA%) despite that they are just average at it (169th in 3P%). And that is shown in other areas as Northwestern is so-so at grabbing offensive rebounds (161st in OR%) and one of the worst teams at getting to the free-throw line (333rd in FTR).

Defensively, Northwestern is 111th in adjusted efficiency (100.6) and prefers to play a matchup zone. This zone makes the paint a difficult place for opponents to score (27th in 2P%), but it has its weaknesses. Offenses can slice right through it with crisp passes (343rd in ast%) without worrying about throwing a pass that will be picked off (287th in TO%), and that'll usually lead to wide-open threes (209th in 3PA%, 164th in 3P%). Also, the zone leaves Northwestern somewhat vulnerable to allowing second-chance points (126th in OR%) and being out of position and forced to commit fouls (118th in FTR).

The Personnel

Northwestern's two top scorers are in its backcourt: 6-foot-3 sophomore Bryant McIntosh (14.3 PPG) and 6-foot-3 senior Tre Demps (14.9 PPG). McIntosh is the point guard and one of the best at his position in the Big Ten. He averages 6.6 APG and owns the 12th-best assist rate in the nation (37.9 pct.). Add in that his turnover rate is only 17 percent in comparison, and it's clear that McIntosh knows how to run an offense. However, he runs his offense better when he's taking jumpers (36.8 3P%) rather than when he's trying to drive to the rim (45.8 2P%). Demps has a great assist-to-turnover rate (2.6) like McIntosh, but he makes his mark as a scorer because he loves to shoot (27.6 shot%). Demps is streaky, though, capable of going off for 30 one night and making just 3-of-17 shots the next. Lately, he's been feeling it, averaging 20.2 PPG in his last five games.

The two wings joining McIntosh and Demps in the starting lineup are 6-foot-6 junior Sanjay Lumpkin and 6-foot-8 freshman Aaron Falzon. Lumpkin is a low-usage offensive player (11.4 pct.) who gets his points by either cutting to the rim for layups (55.6 2P%) or getting open for teammates behind the three-point line (35.3 3P%). However, he has a bad habit of turning the ball over when it's in his hands (24.5 TO%). Lumpkin also is a very good rebounder for a 6-foot-6 wing (5.3 RPG, 7.2 OR%, 17.8 DR%). On the other hand, Falzon essentially is a three-point specialist. Over three-fourths of his field-goal tries have been from long range, and he is a pedestrian 34 percent from that area.

The starting center will be seven-foot senior Alex Olah, who is averaging 10.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 1.5 BPG. Olah missed six games in the middle of the season and hasn't been the same offensive player since he returned. In that time, his offensive rating has been only 91.1 because he's really struggled to score when he hasn't been right next to the rim (43.9 2P% in B1G play). He's not even getting to the free-throw line as much as he used to (31.8 FTR, 52.4 FT%). However, Olah still is an excellent rebounder on defense (18.8 DR%) and dominant shot blocker that patrols the paint (7.2 blk%).

Off the bench, 6-foot-5 sophomore wing Scottie Lindsey, 6-foot-8 freshman center Dererk Pardon, and 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Gavin Skelly tend to make the biggest impact. Lindsey is a great three-point shooter (41.7 pct.), but he doesn't distribute the ball like McIntosh and Demps do, which puts lots of pressure on Chris Collins to play his two starting guards almost the entire game. Pardon is an extremely efficient scorer around the rim (66.7 2P%) and incredible rebounder (11.4 OR%, 17.9 DR%), but he limits his impact by fouling too much. He has at least three fouls in each of the past five games. And Skelly is very much in the same mold as Pardon as a scorer and rebounder.

The Keys

Make Your Threes: This is included as one of the keys in almost every Michigan game, and it'll be even more important tonight. With Alex Olah sitting in the paint, offenses can have a difficult time scoring around the rim against Northwestern's matchup zone. However, Northwestern isn't disciplined or talented enough to lock down the perimeter as well. Michigan should be able to find open looks from the three-point line, and we'll see if Michigan actually is out of its slump after hitting 13-of-27 threes against Maryland.

Cut Off Dribble Penetration: Michigan has had trouble stopping dribble penetration much of the season, and the Wolverines are about to face two dangerous guards in Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps. If McIntosh and Demps are able to get inside, it will open up the offense for Northwestern and help them get better looks around the rim. Michigan would prefer that Northwestern would settle and try its luck from deep (169h in 3P%).

Lock Down Alex Olah: Last season, Olah dominated Michigan, averaging 23.5 PPG and 9.5 RPG. Over and over again, he planted himself in the paint, and the Wolverines couldn't do anything to stop him. Though Olah hasn't been the same player since his foot injury, Michigan knows what Olah is capable of against them. Mark Donnal needs to be strong in the post defensively and not allow Olah to get good position on the block.

The Prediction

Michigan 76, Northwestern 66