Northwestern plays both of the Big Ten’s Michigan schools this week. The Wildcats travel to the University of Michigan on Wednesday night and host Michigan State on Saturday. With both teams ranked it is clear NU will be facing two tough tests, but essentially winning either game would be enough to place NU back into realistic discussion for the NCAA Tournament. Generally speaking road games are tougher, but it is possible that Northwestern matches up better with Michigan’s perimeter oriented style of play than Michigan State’s inside bruisers.
When one starts to talk about Michigan they have to begin with Tim Hardaway Jr. the talented sophomore forward. Hardaway scores 15.9ppg and has shown the ability to be explosive. In many ways he is similar to NU’s Drew Crawford. However, Hardaway is weaker three point shooter who makes less than 30% of his three point shots. Where Hardaway seems to have be able to outshine Crawford is he is a little bigger which helps him finish and he seems less impacted when things don’t go right. I’ve seen Hardaway hit big shots on nights when he’s struggled from the floor, but Crawford seems to need things to right early in order to have a big game.
Michigan’s next top scorer is freshman guard Trey Burke. Burke scores 13.8ppg and makes 36.2% of his threes. He’s also a very talented ball handler with about a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. In addition, like Hardaway, he’s got an explosiveness to him when he takes the ball to the hoop. I’ve been really impressed with Burke to this point as I thought Michigan would struggle in the backcourt without Darius Morris. I’m hopeful NU’s unique 1-3-1 zone and extended pressure will cause trouble for the freshman, but his quickness may counter some of NU’s tricks.
Once you get past Hardaway and Burke, Michigan actually looks a lot like Northwestern, but the difference is while NU is an okay shooting team, Michigan is a great shooting team. Evan Smotrycz, Zack Novack, and Stu Douglass are all excellent shooters who could cause NU trouble. The good new is that none of three are going to get open on their own. As a result, if NU plays pressure defense they can probably force Burke and Hardaway to beat them. That might happen, but I’d rather give up twos than threes. Especially early on the road.
For Northwestern to win they need to play that great defense, rebound, but most importantly make shots. NU’s shooting was what cost them the Illinois game. I still think the new rims at Welsh-Ryan impacted that result, but I don’t want to worry too much about events which I don’t have control over. Still, it was a tough loss that really didn’t need to happen. If NU ends up one game short of the tournament, I’m not going to let that result go. For now, though, I’ll focus on the Michigan game. The problem is I don’t think NU can win it. I predict: Michigan, 77 Northwestern, 65