Northwestern has shown improvement in their last two games, but Michigan is one of the teams in the Big Ten that seems to have made the biggest jump of late. A Michigan team that at one point looked like one of the league’s weakest squads has recently posted wins over tournament bubble teams Michigan State and Penn State. As a result, there is still a chance for Michigan to make the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern, considering they have the same Big Ten record as Michigan and the same number of overall wins, has to be considered a team in the same boat. After Wednesday night, though, one of the two teams is going to get tossed out of that boat. It’s a like a reality show, but the game is actually real and not scripted.
Northwestern has won the last three meetings between these teams and in the last two the Wildcats have been fairly dominate. However, both those last two meetings were in Evanston and I see Michigan as a much more challenging team now than they were in January. A big part of Michigan’s improvement is the better play from Tim Hardaway, Jr. In Michigan’s recent wins, Hardaway has added a more consistent three point shot to his to his excellent ability to get shots going to the basket. He’s still only a 32.6% three point shooter overall, but I became much more worried about Michigan as I watched Hardaway knock down clutch threes against Penn State. Northwestern’s improved defensive ability to keep opposing guards on the perimeter and not let them get up open shots will be important in how they defend not just Hardaway, but the entire Michigan lineup. Michigan starts three guards, but even forward Evan Smotrycz is really mostly a three point shooter. In fact at 37.2% from three he is one of the Michigan guys NU must be sure to not allow a clear look. At times, Michigan will even go with a four guard lineup and use Stu Douglass (38.6% from three) off the bench along with Zack Novack (40% from three), Hardaway, and point guard Darius Morris. Morris isn’t much of a three point shooter, but his ability to drive allows him to make over 50% of his field goals and he’s got a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. I worry about him because at times in Evanston he seemed to get whatever shot he wanted. Northwestern must take the approach they took against Ohio State and Illinois and attempt to deny the hot-shooting Michigan team open threes. In addition, though, they also need to fight through screens in order not to have mismatches were Morris and Hardaway are being guarded by slower defenders. I’d still rather see Morris shoot a three than drive and probably on percentage it’s the same for Hardaway, but Novack, Douglass, Smotrycz and backup point guard Matt Vogrich are another story. They all make at least 37% of their threes. If they get going as a group, Michigan has a chance to win a lot of games.
The same can be said for Northwestern’s shooters. It’s what happened versus Michigan last time. When John Shurna, Juice Thompson, and Drew Crawford all show up early, NU tends to get out to leads which are very tough for an opponent to overcome. However, this hasn’t happened in sometime. As a result of Shurna’s latest injury and some inconsistent play from Thompson and Crawford, NU hasn’t had a real strong shooting night in a while. In fact, NU was a better game from Crawford away from knocking off top ranked Ohio State in Evanston.
In order to knock off Michigan for the forth consecutive time, I really believe NU needs to have all three of their top shooters contribute. Contributions from multiple spots is what it takes to win on the road in the Big Ten. Now, it is possible some role players could step up for NU as they did Saturday versus Illinois. JerShon Cobb should be very confident after a game in which he posted 13 points against in a ranked squad and the fact Michigan’s front line is relatively small should increase the odds of a big game from Luka Mirkovic which in turn increases the odds of an NU win. Still, I’d really like to see big games from Crawford and Shurna because long term it’ll be those guys along with Thompson who need to step up for Northwestern to make a serious run at the postseason. If everyone steps up, which we have seen is possible, this could be another fairly easy win for NU, but it’s been an awfully long time since we’ve seen that. I think it is more likely that Northwestern will get decent games from maybe two of three big names (maybe Crawford finally plays a full game because he loved playing at Michigan last year) and then bolstered by a good game from Mirkovic who is more confident without having to worry about 7-1 Mike Tisdale blocking his shots, the ‘Cats will win a close game. I also think that while NU showed they can run vs Michigan the first time these teams met, that won’t be the game plan on the road unless things really open up. After all, it seems like NU is really more comfortable playing at slower pace and they certainly will need to bring that slower pace to State College, PA on Saturday so I see no reason not use it in Ann Arbor on Wednesday. I predict: Northwestern, 66 Michigan, 61