I suspect players and coaches shrug off losses far easier than fans because they can get back to work immediately after crushing defeats and use that return to the court as a kind of therapy to get over the frustration of a bad loss. If that is the case, both Michigan and Northwestern must have been busting down the doors of their practice facilities in order to get to work Sunday morning. The Wildcats 71-67 OT loss to Michigan State on Saturday left them kicking themselves over the missed opportunity to pull a momentum gaining win. On the same day, Michigan got pummeled by a below-average Indiana team after losing two straight close games to #3 Kansas and #2 Ohio State. Simply put, it wasn’t a very legendary day for two of the teams who will be in the Big Ten’s legends division next fall.
Perhaps more frustrating than just losing those games is both teams are now sitting in the lower half of the Big Ten standings, but it could be legitimately argued they have upper division talent on their rosters. The Wildcats biggest problem is that their biggest talent, John Shurna, is still hurting with an ankle sustained December 23rd that allegedly isn’t supposed to get worse even as he plays on it, but doesn’t look like its getting much better either. Michigan is simply taking the lumps that a team that is primarily playing young guys will take. Michigan has found themselves in a position to pull a number of upsets this season, but has lost out to more experienced teams in the clutch.
The most impressive of Michigan’s young talents is point guard Darius Morris who has improved leaps and bounds over last year to become Michigan’s top scorer at 15.7ppg. He’s more aggressive than last year and isn’t settling for the three point shot. In fact, only 21.4% of his field goal attempts have been threes, that probably is good because he only makes 26.7% of his threes. He’s a scary matchup for Northwestern because aggressive points have had their way with breaking down the Wildcat defense and Morris isn’t just a scorer, he also dishes out more than seven (7!) assists a game. People around the Big Ten cite Demetri McCamey as the ideal point guard, but Morris is almost as good.
Michigan’s other top player is one of several on the roster with NBA-bloodlines, Tim Hardaway Jr. He should probably take a lesson from Morris and eschew the three a little more often as about half his shots come from three, but he doesn’t even make 30% of them. Still, he averages 11.2 ppg and his size and skill can cause defenders problems.
Northwestern’s best chance to win this game probably is to play zone. The Wildcats demonstrated Saturday that when they really work at it their zone is very effective. If they make a choice to play as hard on defense as they did in the first half against Michigan State all the time Northwestern will be a very good team. The problem is that they don’t always play that hard. To beat Michigan they will need to though because the fact is Michigan is a team you want to make shoot threes. I’ve already talked about the trouble Morris and Hardaway have from behind the arc, but as a team Michigan only makes 33.3% of their threes, but they shoot a lot. The only Michigan player at 40% in making threes is forward Evan Smotrycz. Zack Novack and Stu Douglass are decent shooters at about 37%, but I think if NU hustles in the zone the length of Crawford, Cobb, Marcotullio, Shurna, and Capocci will make it harder for those guys to get shots off.
On offense the Wildcats will have to contend the athletic skill of guys like Hardaway and Jordan Morgan, but the ‘Cats can still have some size advantages in the post. Also, I think part of the reason that John Shurna had such a poor game on Saturday wasn’t just his ankle, it was a combination of his ankle and Delvon Roe guarding him. Roe is such a great defender that you really need to work by running and cutting hard to get away from him. With Shurna’s injury that ability to accelerate and cut hard is more or less lost. We saw against Indiana and Iowa that he is still a dangerous player when he’s given a clean shot in the offense, but Roe is so tough and good at fighting through screens Shurna never got a clean look against Michigan State. Against U of M it seems more likely that Shurna will get some good looks. I’d also hope Drew Crawford continues to play well and we see the confidence of JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio behind the three point line continue to grow. Still, though, the position I honestly believe helps setup the NU offense is the post. Effective post play early (no necessarily even points, but good passing and no turnovers) is what has launched NU to success in most of their wins. Back at home I’d like think we’ll see that from Luka Mirkovic.
Because of the emotional swings of this season I’ve found many of the games this year hard to predict. Looking at this matchup it’s much of the same. Both teams come in off tough losses and the team that responds the best will likely get the victory. I think playing at home were the ‘Cats have shot well in every contest except when they hosted MSU will give NU an advantage and I expect to see not only better production from Shurna since he doesn’t have to deal with Delvon Roe, but continued good play from Crawford and Mirkovic who stepped up in the second half on Saturday. On the other side, I think NU’s defense’s odd desire to switch on high screens will create mismatches for Darius Morris against Luka and Davdie and he’ll score a lot of points going to the basket. If you like offense you’ll probably enjoy this game. I predict: Northwestern, 91 Michigan, 81
Note: If you're reading this blog you probably know this, but NU moved the start of Sunday's game vs Wisconsin to 11:30 because of the Bears and the Packers playing that afternoon. I like this move because it shows NU is thinking of Chicago fans and that helps promote us as Chicago's Big Ten team.
Second Note: I can't believe I predicted 90+ points for NU and it isn't a signal I've lost my mind. NU hoops has sure changed these past few years.