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Northwestern gives Michigan all it can handle in tight road win

The Wolverines were fortunate to escape Evanston with their perfect record intact.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It might not make sense to be negative after a road win in the Big Ten. The conference looks as deep as ever this season, and Michigan will face some of its tougher challenges when traveling to hostile environments over the next few months. Accordingly, Tuesday night’s victory at Northwestern should be seen as an important win.

However, the Wolverines must take the contest as a warning sign. The Wildcats did everything they could to pull the upset and fell just inches away from giving Michigan its first loss of the year. While a win is a win, a few red flags popped up in Evanston that cannot be ignored.

Less-than-desirable defense

Michigan has already taken down three of the top 20 offenses in the country this season, yet it was Northwestern who averaged the highest effective field goal rate (51.0) and points per possession (0.98) against the Wolverines. While the home team benefited from some lucky shots falling and perhaps some questionable officiating, the Maize and Blue were far from dominant on defense.

The blame belongs to everyone, although the bigs did not have their best game of the season. Center Dererk Pardon essentially had his way in the paint, going 8-for-9, while Vic Law racked up 19 points of his own, including four triples. Every time Michigan started to build a big lead, one of these two Wildcats found a way to bring their team back into the game.

Back to the zone conundrum

It feels like a long time ago, but Michigan was absolutely horrid behind the arc to start the season. Many of these attempts came against zone defenses content with allowing shot after shot, especially after none of them seemed to fall. On Tuesday, the Wolverines fell back into this bad habit, jacking up endless threes that were never going to fall.

Jordan Poole started the game with nine quick points, but he quickly fell back to earth from his recent hot streak, ending with a 1-for-5 line from deep. Zavier Simpson had a horrible 61-second stretch which saw him miss three straight threes, leading to Northwestern’s first lead of the game. Simpson ended 0-for-5, and the team as a whole hit just 25 percent.

Depth may become an issue

Head coach John Beilein has stuck to a seven-man rotation for most games this season, but his eighth selection has been big man Austin Davis. Unfortunately, Davis was a complete disaster against Northwestern, recording zero points and three fouls in just seven minutes. His time on the floor corresponded with a big Wildcat run that eliminated Michigan’s chance of killing off the game.

This is a warning sign. If Jon Teske runs into foul trouble like he did Tuesday, the Wolverines could have some issues. Isaiah Livers has spent some time at the five this season, but he could not handle Pardon. Livers posted a 107 Defensive Rating, which is far from ideal.

Grinding it out on offense

The lack of three-pointers falling kept Michigan to just 1.01 points per possession. The Wolverines struggled to facilitate much offense against the Wildcat defensive sets, ending with a 19.6 percent assist rate. It was an especially tough game for Charles Matthews, who somehow had an effective field goal rate of just 14 percent on seven shots.

The hero was — once again — Ignas Brazdeikis. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week carried the team with 23 points, one short of his career-high. His 32.0 percent usage rate was completely justified, and there are not many new things that can be said about how good he looks so far. While all of his teammates struggled from deep, Iggy had no problem, nailing three of his six attempts. He was the difference maker for the Wolverines.