Saturday, January 24, 2009

Game 17: Northwestern @ Michigan

The Matchup: Northwestern (10-6) @ Michigan (13-6)

Location: Crisler Arena (Ann Arbor, MI)

TV: Big Ten Network (7:00 PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Fun Fact: The last time Northwestern won back to back road games in the Big Ten was January of 1999.

About the Game

Michigan comes into this contest on a three game losing steak. Their loss on Tuesday at Penn Sate by the score of 73-58 was certainly the low point of the Wolverines season thus far. Northwestern comes into the game on a two game winning steak with the Wildcats win over Michigan State on Wednesday being the team’s highest point of the season thus far. Will the two teams’ divergent streaks have an impact on the game? The answer is almost certainly yes, but the real question is in what way will the teams’ seemingly divergent fortunes impact the game. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has stated he plans to remind his Wildcats what they did to Minnesota after the Gophers big upset over Wisconsin in order keep the Wildcats focused. This is probably a good idea.

Michigan coach John Beilein has a different challenge from Carmody. He needs to get his team back to playing the way they did when they defeated UCLA and Duke. The last five games Michigan has settled on a starting five of Kelvin Grady, Laval Lucas-Perry, Manny Harris, Zack Novak and DeShawn Sims. While establishing a consistent lineup is a good thing, Michigan’s recent struggles might result in more change. Two players that won’t leave the lineup are Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims. Harris is possibly the league’s best player. He is second in scoring (18.1 ppg) and third in rebounding (7.4 rpg). Sims leads the Big Ten in rebounding with 8.1 rpg and also scores 15.8 ppg. Other than Sims and Harris, Michigan will rely on the three point shooting of Zack Novack and Laval Lucas-Perry. In the post, the Wolverines will bring 6-10 Zack Gibson off the bench. Gibson started 6 games this year, but is now used as a backup to Sims and Novack, who despite being 6-5, starts at forward.

When breaking down numbers and strategy a lot of similarities are evident between Michigan and Northwestern. Both teams will play a lot of 1-3-1 zone and rely on the three point shot. Northwestern’s advantage is they shoot higher percentage from three (38.1 to 32.8) and get more steals (7.5 to 6.3). Michigan gets the advantage in rebounding (32.7 to 30.1) and free throw shooting (77% to 67%). The approach each team takes on defense will be interesting to watch. Both may use the 1-3-1 as a base, but as the 1-3-1 often allows open three point shots, and both teams have good shooters, each squad may use more man-to-man. Michigan especially might be advised to use man-to-man in order to get a single defender (probably Harris) on Kevin Coble. For Northwestern, stopping Harris and Sims will be the key. In order to so, I expect them to use the 1-3-1, but also some 2-3 matchup in order to prevent Michigan from getting the ball inside.

Prediction: Without a doubt this is a big game for both teams. Michigan has the advantage in playing at home, but based on the numbers that advantage isn’t huge. Even with two of the Big Ten’s top rebounders Michigan actually only gets about two more rebounds per game than Northwestern. In the starting lineup, Northwestern will actually be bigger than Michigan. Michigan’s advantage is in their athletes. Can Northwestern make up for this advantage with their array of zones and ability to make more threes? I think so, but it will be close. Northwestern, 61 Michigan, 59

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