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Northwestern at Michigan Preview: Fighting through the congested middle

The Wolverines fumbled away a win on Thursday but must regroup quickly.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It was an all-too-familiar story for the Michigan Wolverines in Iowa City, as the visitors gave away a game that could have — and should have — been locked up. Instead, Michigan returns home empty-handed with the resume still looking pretty sparse. The Big Ten season will offer more opportunities for good wins, but at this point the trend is very clear.

The Wolverines host the Northwestern Wildcats on Sunday, a team that sits just outside the top 50 in Kenpom and the NET rankings, meaning this is still an important opportunity. The Wildcats have some surprises over Michigan State and Illinois, as well as a narrow win over Indiana, but it is hard to know how good anyone truly is in this conference right now.

At home, this is a game Michigan must find a way to take. Looking ahead, a trip to Maryland and a visit from Minnesota are on the schedule before the season’s only date with Purdue (the lone team in the Big Ten to look legit), and it feels like this stretch must go 2-1 at worst. Northwestern should not be overlooked, but Juwan Howard has to have this one.

Northwestern Wildcats (12-4, 3-2) at Michigan Wolverines (9-7, 3-2)

Date & Time: Sunday, Jan. 15, 12 p.m.
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
TV/Streaming: BTN
Big Ten Standings: NW t-4th, MICH t-4th

Keep it rolling

The vomit-inducing performance in East Lansing last weekend does provide a reality check, but outside of that outing, Michigan has scored 1.08, 1.20, and 1.15 PPP since New Year’s. This has come with fairly sustainable shooting and not many free throws or offensive rebounds, and the offense sits fourth-best so far in conference play.

It will definitely be a test against Northwestern, who owns a top-15 defense nationally. Big Ten opponents have not exactly been locked out against this team, but some of this is due to abnormally high three-point efforts the last two games, which is not an area that the Wolverines are always able to exploit.

Good luck telling that to Jett Howard, though. The freshman was on fire against Iowa and will be sure to test his luck from deep again on Sunday. Against the Wildcats, this seems like the way to go, and Michigan’s success might come down to who else joins Howard as an efficient shooter. Kobe Bufkin could use a nice rebound after struggles on both ends Thursday, and expect the duo to take a healthy number of threes.

Northwestern’s interior defense is the strength of this team, and basically no one in the country has better limited points inside the arc. This is thanks to hustle and intensity more than size, and the entire unit works well collectively to force turnovers and bad looks. Michigan could really use Hunter Dickinson to fight through the chaos and use his frame at the hoop, but it will really take a team effort to make sure the ball does not get stuck.


Obviously, Thursday was Michigan’s worst defensive performance in conference play, but that is only one bad game out of five. The Wildcats do not have a good offense and currently feature Big Ten-worst eFG and two-point percentages, and rarely is this team lighting up the scoreboard.

The Wolverines have a chance to regroup in two key areas. The first is defensive rebounding, which really suffered against the Hawkeyes, as it has in previous losses. The second is guarding the perimeter, as Northwestern should not be able to get open on every ball screen like Iowa did, which allowed so many clean looks from deep. Communication continues to be a challenge for this young squad, and more reps are clearly needed.

In many ways, Northwestern is the exact opposite of Iowa, owning a top defense and an average offense. Whether this profile benefits Michigan or not is unclear, but the numbers do technically show the Wolverines as slightly better defensively in conference play, so it could be a bit of a grind on both ends. Michigan has actually won five straight against the Wildcats and really should be able to make it six on Sunday.