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Preview: Northwestern at Michigan

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Northwestern heads to Michigan tomorrow for what is basically a must win game if the 'Cats want to have any chance at an NCAA bid. The game is at 1:30 central time and will be televised by the Big Ten Network, with Tom Hamilton and Greg Kelser on the call.

Michigan comes into this game with an 8-6 overall record, and 2-1 in Big Ten play. They started the season ranked #15 in the country, but struggled mightily in non-conference play, then lost to lowly Indiana in their first league game. But they've got some momentum heading into this game with consecutive wins over Ohio State and Penn State. So let's break down the Wolverines.

Team Strengths:

-not turning the ball over. They only turn it over on 15% of their possessions, which is the 3rd best in the country.

-turning over their opponents. They force turnovers on 24% of opponents possessions, 40th in the country.

-shoot 2 pointers. 52.7% is good for 34th in the country, but this is partially due to them not taking very many.

Team Weaknesses:

-rebounding. Michigan ranks 264th in offensive rebounding, and 269th in defensive rebounding.

- 3 point shooting. They are 313th in the nation at just 29% from behind the arc. Even worse, they take 44% of their field goals from three point range, 10th highest in the country. It seems like a case of square peg into round hole if there ever was one.

Michigan is a similar team to Northwestern, in that they run a perimeter oriented offense and play a lot of zone defense. The biggest difference is that Northwestern is shooting much better from behind the arc, at 35%. The 'Cats don't force nearly as many turnovers, but they have done a good job at defensive rebounding, which has been a weakness for Northwestern as long as Carmody has been here until this year. Thankfully, the 'Cats finally have legitimate Big Ten size and athleticism and are holding their own on the glass.

Michigan head coach John Beilein has basically shortened his rotation to 6 guys in Big Ten play, as ineffective backup center Zack Gibson is barely getting into the game now. The star for the Wolverines is junior guard Manny Harris, who is making a strong case for conference player of the year. Harris leads the Big Ten in scoring at 19.4 a game, is third in assists at 4.9 a game, and is eighth in rebounding at 6.7 a game. He's probably the best slasher in the conference; he does a nice job getting to the basket and either finishing in traffic or kicking it out to his teammates. His only weakness is 3-point shooting, as he's shooting just 28% and is attempting 5 per game.

Michigan also has one of the best interior players in the conference in senior DeShawn Sims. He's averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds a game, and shooting over 50% from the field. His game is more about mid-range jumpers than taking it strong to the hole, as Sims gets to the free throw line a surprisingly low amount, attempting just 3 per game. He can occasionally even step back and hit a 3, hitting on 31% of his attempts. His strong play has been key in the Wolverines recent 2 game winning streak; he had 28 against Ohio State and 25 against Penn State.

The rest of Michigan's starting five has really struggled all season. Stu Douglass and Zack Novak are both 3-point specialists, the problem is neither one of them can shoot. Douglass is shooting just 33% from the field and 31% from 3-point range, and Novak is at just 28% on threes.

Lavell Lucas-Perry has been their best 3-point shooter, as he's at 36% on the season,and was a big factor in the Wolverines huge comeback win Thursday at Penn State, hitting 4 threes in the second half and finishing with 16 points. He's been a long way from consistent though, as the previous 2 Big Ten games he was held scoreless in 42 total minutes.

The only bench player getting significant minutes for Michigan is freshman guard Darius Morris. Looking at his statline, it's unclear what he brings to the table other than turning the ball over. I assume he's a good athlete and defender, I do know he's not a 3-point threat as he's only taken 15 all season and made 3.

So for Northwestern on defense, the key is not letting both Sims and Harris go off. Last year in Ann Arbor, NU played a 1-3-1 zone early and Michigan gashed it, mostly on easy layups from Sims. The 1-3-1 is not going to work against Michigan for two reasons, one that Michigan plays 1-3-1 a lot so they're familiar with it and practice against it all the time,  and secondly because Michigan doesn't turn the ball over and passes well. Instead I'd like to see the 'Cats play some man to man. Rowley and Mirkovic won't be able to shut down Sims, but their size and length should at least force him away from the basket and keep him from getting easy dunks and lay-ups. Also, Sims is not much of a passer as he doesn't even average one assist per game, so double-teaming him inside should prove effective, and I'd much rather force the Wolverines inconsistent 3-point shooters to win this game than Sims. Similarly, Crawford and Nash won't be able to shut down Manny Harris, but they should be able to slow him down a little.

I really don't get Carmody's hatred of playing man to man to defense. He did it in the second half against Iowa State and it was very effective, but it's rarely been seen since then. Like I said earlier, NU has Big Ten level talent now, this is not one of his past teams with no size or athleticism that needed to rely on gimmicks to have a chance. I know Ryan over at Welsh-Ryan Ramblings has been saying this all season, and I completely agree with him.

When Northwestern has the ball in this game, I expect them to be able to score. The 'Cats should be familiar with the 1-3-1 if Michigan plays that, and since they are such a good passing team, open looks will be there especially from three. I expect Alex Marcotullio to have a big game tomorrow, as he's returning to his home state and will be out to show Michigan they made a mistake in not recruiting him. And if Michigan plays man to man, they have absolutely no one to defend John Shurna. I assume Novak will attempt it, and he will have his hands full. Shurna is averaging 28 points a game in Big Ten play, and has scored at least 20 in five straight games. He has a size and strength advantage against everyone in Michigan's rotation except Sims, and Sims I'm sure will be guarding Mirkovic. So look for Shurna to have another big game, he's even improved his 3-point shooting recently after a very slow start to the season.

Michigan has finally turned around their season, and Wolverine fans are already looking ahead. The thinking is that with a win tomorrow and a home win in their next game over Indiana, Michigan is back on the bubble. What people are forgetting is that Michigan has played poorly most of the year, and that Northwestern is not the Northwestern of old. This team has talent, and if they have an ounce of pride they will come out playing hard tomorrow after that embarrassing effort against UTPA. Michael Thompson is too much of a competitor to keep playing so badly, and Michigan has no one to guard John Shurna who is very quietly making a strong case for an All Big Ten spot. If Carmody plays a lot of 1-3-1, then all bets are off, but I really think Northwestern is going to win this game and salvage the season. There isn't a point spread out yet, but Michigan will definitely be favored, probably by about 5. Regardless of what it is, I'm taking the 'Cats.

Northwestern 69, Michigan 61

Look for Thompson to return to form, Shurna to have another big game, and Marcotullio to bury a dagger 3-pointer late. Just hope the 1-3-1 doesn't make any appearances. There will be a game thread tomorrow, so take a break from the NFL and join us. See you then.