Who: Northwestern Wildcats (20-11, 8-10 Big Ten)
When: Thursday, March 10th, at Noon ET (BTN)
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse -- Indianapolis, Ind.
Spread: Vegas: TBA | KenPom: W, 68-66 (57% WP)
Michigan must fight for its NCAA Tournament life in the Big Ten Tournament, and it'll be much fiercer than one would have believed three weeks ago. In that time, Michigan blew four chances to add a fourth quality win, losing at Ohio State, at Maryland, at Wisconsin, and vs. Iowa. As a result, the Wolverines have fallen out of the NCAA Tournament, with most brackets slotting them in the "First Four Out." Michigan probably needs two wins this week to break back into the field because the second win would be against Indiana and of quality. And there is a slight chance that the selection committee could choose the Wolverines even if they win just once, favoring their three RPI top-25 wins and no bad losses over other bubble resumes. But, if Michigan drops this first Big Ten Tournament game, the NIT will be a guarantee for the Maize and Blue.
Northwestern enters the Big Ten Tournament with a three-game winning streak, but it's nothing to brag about. Those three wins were against Rutgers, Penn State, and Nebraska. In fact, of the Wildcats' eight conference wins, only one came against a Big Ten team that is ahead of them in the standings -- Wisconsin before Greg Gard sold his soul to Satan for another top-four Big Ten finish. Northwestern isn't a terrible team by any means -- #76 on KenPom -- but it isn't a team that has performed well against quality competition.
Offensively, Northwestern is 82nd in adjusted efficiency (108.5). The Wildcats are proficient from the field (53rd in eFG%), making 52.3 percent of their twos (50th) and 35.6 percent of their threes (132nd), and tend to launch their shots from long range (43rd in 3PA%). They also are very skilled with the basketball, registering lots of assists (16th in ast%) while keeping the turnovers to a minimum (39th in TO%). However, Northwestern is just so-so on the offensive glass (148th in OR%), and the free-throw line gives the Wildcats nightmares. They're 338th in free-throw rate and 300th in free-throw shooting.
Defensively, Northwestern is 89th in adjusted efficiency (99.5) and usually sticks with a conservative matchup zone. The zone permits offenses to swing the ball freely (341st in ast%) without much risk (271st in TO%) and find many open shots from behind the three-point line (220th in 3PA%, 149th in 3P%). However, the Wildcats sacrifice this to protect the paint (22nd in 2P%, 85th in blk%) -- though they can be too handsy at times (129th in FTR) -- and grab a solid number of defensive rebounds (112th in DR%). But there is the chance that Northwestern abandons its matchup zone for a traditional man-to-man defense. Northwestern did it in the first meeting against Michigan and could do it again.
The Maize and Blue faithful hoped that its favorite team would never face seven-foot senior center Alex Olah again, but the Michigan murderer will get one last round against the Wolverines. Olah has averaged 11.1 PPG and 5.3 RPG this season -- one that was disrupted by a foot injury -- but, in his last three games against Michigan, he's tallied 22.0 PPG with a 63.8 eFG% and 8.0 RPG. Northwestern will feed Olah on the block, where he uses his big body to bury defenders deep and flashes a wonderful touch (57.1 2P%). He also has little issue knocking down mid-range jumpers, though he sometimes becomes overzealous and tries his luck from three (26.9 3P%). On the other end, Olah is a fantastic defensive rebounder (19.2 DR%) and anchors Northwestern's matchup zone (7.1 blk%).
For teams not named Michigan, Northwestern's two biggest threats lie in the backcourt: 6-foot-3 sophomore point guard Bryant McIntosh and 6-foot-3 senior shooting guard Tre Demps. McIntosh is the team's second-leading scorer (13.6 PPG) and typically a reliable jump shooter (35.7 3P%), but he had a tougher time finding his rhythm against his Big Ten brethren (40.8 eFG% in B1G play). Nonetheless, McIntosh's best skill isn't his shooting but his passing. He owns one of the best assist rates in the country (37.5 pct.) and knows how to direct Northwestern's offense. As for Demps, there aren't many players that love to shoot more than he does, which is why he leads the Wildcats in scoring (15.5 PPG). He doesn't have the best shooting percentages (46.0 2P%, 32.5 3P%), but he is very streaky. On any given night, he can torch an opposing defense from deep.
Six-foot-6 junior wing Sanjay Lumpkin and 6-foot-8 freshman forward Aaron Falzon round out the starting lineup. Lumpkin rarely scores (3.9 PPG) because he usually plays about half the game (23.2 MPG) and isn't very involved in the offense when he is in (11.2 usg%). When he does shoot, he's pretty efficient (110.3 ORtg) because he only slashes to the bucket for layups (59.2 2P%) or connects on threes (37.1 3P%). Nonetheless, Lumpkin will make more of a mark on the boards (7.0 OR%, 17.2 DR%). On the other hand, Falzon will make more of an offensive impact. He averages 8.7 PPG, and most of it comes from downtown (78.5 3PA%, 36.0 3P%). Michigan witnessed this firsthand when Falzon poured in 14 points on 4-of-8 shooting from distance in Ann Arbor earlier this season.
McIntosh and Demps essentially play the entire game, so the three Northwestern reserves that see the most time rotate into the front court. Six-foot-5 sophomore wing Scottie Lindsey is a dependable jump shooter (40.7 3P%) that doesn't bring much else to the table. The big men, 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Gavin Skelly and 6-foot-8 freshman center Dererk Pardon, can be tough loads to handle inside. Both score well around the rim, both know how to earn their way to the line, both are excellent rebounders, both can send opponents' shots in the other direction, and both have a bad habit of fouling. The key differences are that Skelly hits the rare three and is very sloppy with the basketball.
No-lah: Alex Olah looks like an NBA center when he steps on the court against Michigan. The Wolverines still have beaten him notwithstanding, but that doesn't mean they should continue to let it happen. Michigan needs to make Olah work for his points tomorrow. Prevent the entry pass into the post. Push him out of the paint and force him to make jumpers. Don't let him set up shop around the rim. It's not an easy task, but it's one Michigan must do tomorrow. And it's a task that Mark Donnal can do adequately.
Tickle the Twine from Three: Michigan overcame its early deficit against Northwestern to win the first meeting because Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (19 points) and Derrick Walton (16 points) abandoned the three to attack the basket. One reason for this was that Northwestern surprised Michigan with a man defense, which extended out on shooters more than the matchup zone. The other was that Wolverines not named Aubrey Dawkins could not buy a triple (1-of-11 3P). Whether Northwestern sticks with its man or reverts back to its matchup zone, the Wolverines can't go that cold from behind the arc again.
Play with Passion: The last few weeks have been dispiriting for Michigan. The Wolverines had multiple chances to punch their NCAA Tournament ticket and let all of them slip away. Now, they are outside the bubble looking in and know it. They can let that get the best of them and go out with a whimper on Thursday. Or they can put the disappointment behind them and play with fire, knowing that the season isn't over yet.
Michigan 74, Northwestern 67