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Preview: Michigan at Northwestern

Northwestern returns home to the friendly confines of Welsh-Ryan Arena, hosting Michigan tonight. Tip-off is at 6 PM central on Big Ten network, with Dave Revsine and Jim Jackson on the call. This is the second meeting this season between Northwestern and Michigan, in the first game, Northwestern rallied from a 17 point deficit behind freshman Drew Crawford. My recap of that game can be read here.

Since we last saw Michigan, they have gone 3-3, with home wins over Indiana, Iowa and UConn (the UConn win is looking worse by the day as the Huskies keep losing Big East games), a home loss to Michigan State, and road losses to Wisconsin and Purdue. The loss to the Boilers was the only lopsided defeat of the three, and was expected as Michigan was without Manny Harris, who was suspended by coach John Beilein for acting out in practice. Overall the Wolverines are 11-10, 4-5 in the Big Ten.

Priority number one tonight for Northwestern is defending Michigan center DeShawn Sims. During Big Ten play, Sims has stepped up his game and leads the conference in scoring at nearly 21 points a game and is second in rebounding at 8 per game, all while shooting 55% from the field. He's established himself as the clear choice for All Big Ten center, having outplayed his closest competitor JaJuan Johnson when those two met a couple weeks ago. Sims is very quick in the low post and is an excellent mid-range jump shooter, and he could cause big problems as Northwestern has no one who can guard him one on one. I would like to see the 'Cats double team him whenever he catches the ball inside, as Sims averages only 1 assist per game and doesn't like to pass the ball. I would much rather force Michigan's inconsistent role players to win the game shooting threes than see Sims go off.

The other star for Michigan is mercurial guard Manny Harris. Harris has all the talent in the world, averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game during conference play. However, his maturity is highly questionable as seen by his one game suspension earlier this season by Beilein, and his shot selection at times leaves a lot to be desired. Harris could easily go for 30 points tonight, but could just as easily go 4 of 15 from the field with 6 turnovers, you really never know what you're going to get from the kid. As I mentioned in a previous post, his real name is Corperryale L'Adorable Harris, and no I am not making that up. Not really relevant to tonight's game, but worth pointing out again.

The four other key members of the Michigan rotation are all guards. Stu Douglass is primarily a 3-point shooter, and is only hitting at 31% from behind the arc. Laval Lucas-Perry leads all Wolverine regulars at 33% on threes, but he is prone to completely disappearing for long stretches, as he's been held scoreless in 4 of 9 conference games. 6'5" guard Zack Novak plays hard and is a decent rebounder at almost 5 per game, but he is undersized while battling inside against bigger forwards, and struggles from behind the arc at just 29%. The first guy off the bench for Michigan is freshman Darius Morris, who brings some athleticism to the team and is a pretty good passer. However, he's turnover prone and isn't much of an outside shooter, at just 5 for 26 on the year from three, although two of those threes came against Northwestern, the second one giving his team a 1 point lead with just over a minute left. I think he has some upside but isn't quite there yet. You'll also see brief appearances from shooters Anthony Wright and Matt Vogrich, and backup center Zack Gibson.

Michigan is a similar team to Northwestern, in that they take a lot of threes on offense and play a lot of zone defense. Their offense has struggled for much of the year though, as they shoot just 29% from three as a team, one of the worst percentages in the nation. Their defense has been good for the most part, ranking 38th nationally according to Pomeroy (the offense is 100th). The zone has been forcing a lot of turnovers and defending the 3-point shot well, allowing opponents to shoot just 29%. However, their defensive rebounding has been poor, and so has their interior defense, mostly due to playing a 4-guard offense.

I would really like to see John Shurna have a big game tonight. I thought he would go off last time against Michigan, as they have no one who matches up well with him, but he was fairly quiet. Shurna has stepped up his offensive game during conference play, as he's second to Sims in scoring, and leads the conference in 3 pointers made, greatly improving his outside shooting. He's also been automatic at the free throw line at 37 for 41. His rebounds are down a bit, but that's to be expected against bigger and more athletic front lines. I don't think Shurna is quite at All Big Ten level yet, as Robbie Hummel has to get the edge right now, but Shurna is close and should get there next year.

Northwestern is a 2 point favorite tonight, indicating that the oddsmakers believe Michigan to be the better team (home court advantage is worth around 4 points when determining spreads). While I don't really agree with that and would rather have Northwestern's team, tonight feels like a trap game for the 'Cats. They already beat Michigan once, and now they're finally done with the brutal stretch of schedule and head home for what most people are penciling in as a win. While Michigan has underachieved and been downright bad away from home (2-7 with the only wins being in OT over a bad Creighton team and at 0-9 in the Big Ten Penn State), they still have the two most talented players on the floor in Sims and Harris. Yes, the rest of the roster is bad, but it's unclear if Carmody will make the necessary adjustments to force Michigan's role players to win the game. For Northwestern to win this game, they will have to shoot well from 3-point range. Shurna, Michael Thompson, and Drew Crawford are all good outside shooters, but sometimes it's tough to hit from the outside, and if they aren't hitting I think they could be in trouble. Luka Mirkovic has been invisible on offense for 2 straight games, he will need to show up on the inside tonight to take some pressure off the outside shooters.

Despite all that negativity, I still can't pick against Northwestern at home, as they have played well in their last 2 home games in near must win situations. But I am very nervous about tonight, and wouldn't be at all surprised to see a Michigan win.

Northwestern 64, Michigan 61

It won't be easy, but hopefully the 'Cats can gut out a win at home. See everyone tonight for the game thread.