With the Selection Sunday and the NCAA Tournament right around the corner, Michigan finds themselves with some work to still be done.
This week presents presents two road games, the first of which is tonight at Northwestern (14-10, 5-6 Big Ten) at 7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
The Wolverines (19-6, 8-4) are 1.5-point favorites after beating the Wildcats just over a week ago 58-47 at the Crisler Center.
In that contest, defense was the biggest factor to U-M walking out of the arena with a victory as they held NW to just 25 percent (4-of-16) from deep and forced 16 turnovers.
Here are three keys to tonight's matchup.
Stop the veterans - Regardless of how disappointing this season has been for the Wildcats following their first ever NCAA Tournament berth a season ago, they still have players who know how to win Big Ten games. Vic Law, Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey are all players who were on the floor a season ago when they defeated U-M at the buzzer for a signature win on their 2016-17 resume. Lindsey leads the team by averaging 14 points per game and scored 15 against the Wolverines. McIntosh averages 12.6 points per game and Law is right behind him with 12.4 points per, respectively. If you can stop those three on a team that ranks 12th in the conference in scoring (71.3 points per), it will shut down nearly half of the Wildcats offense.
The inside battle - In the first meeting, Beilein praised U-M junior forward Moritz Wagner for handling NW’s junior forward Dererk Pardon. On the season, Pardon averages 11.7 points and seven rebounds per contest, but against the Wolverines (with Wagner primarily guarding him), the 6-foot-8 forward was held to nine points and seven rebounds, while Wagner scored eight points but totaled eight rebounds. Wagner contained Pardon and then Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy this past weekend and has been solid on the defensive glass. NW is No. 3 in the Big Ten on the offensive glass, but only totaled seven offensive boards against U-M. The Wolverines will need more of that out of Wagner and the team for rebounding tonight.
Playing your pace - The Wildcats simply couldn’t get anything going against U-M in transition the last time the two teams matched up. They had zero fast break points, but they did do a good job of holding U-M to a half court offense in the first half where they have struggled this season. On the road, generating energy from turnovers and easy buckets from the start will be crucial to the Wolverines success. A slow start with no easy buckets will allow NW to play a close game even without a great offense.
Final thoughts - When U-M senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was asked about his memory of losing to NW on the road last year, he said “I still remember where I was standing on the court”. This game tonight means something to the U-M players who returned from last season’s squad. KenPom gives U-M a slim win at 63-62 with a 55 percent chance to win in Evanston. With the concern for the Wolverines current NCAA Tournament resume not being the most impressive, a pair of road wins against NW tonight and Wisconsin Sunday could make their lives easier heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.