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Key Matchup: Northwestern vs. Michigan: Defending The Three

Last time Northwestern faced Michigan, they won easily, but don't expect NU to cruise to another win tonight. Michigan has been playing well of late, winning three of their four with the only loss coming at Ohio State, and the odds-makers have the Wolverines as 2.5 to 3 point favorites on their home court. NU probably won't be facing a raucous crowd (Michigan is all but giving tickets away for tonight's game), but winning on the road in the Big Ten is never an easy task, regardless of opponent or the size of the crowd.

For Northwestern to win tonight, they will need to do a good job defending the three point line (a common theme in conference road games this year). Perimeter defense is always a key against a John Beilein-coached team, but it's even more important this season. In Michigan's four conference wins, they've shot 46.6% from three (never hitting fewer than 40% of their threes), but in their seven conference losses, they've hit at just 35.1%, and only topped 40% once (in a competitive loss to Ohio State). NU did a great job of this in the first meeting, holding the Wolverines to just 6 for 22 from distance, which was their worst effort of the Big Ten season.

To keep Michigan from getting hot, NU will need to stay at home on Michigan's one-dimensional shooters like Zack Novak, Stu Douglass and Matt Vogrich, and not help during the inevitable occasions when Darius Morris gets into the paint. Morris will get a lot of twos using this strategy, but it's ok if he goes for 25 and the rest of the Wolverines don't do much (like how Penn State usually loses when Talor Battle goes for 25+ and none of his teammates get to double figures). The real problems will come if Morris finishes with a line like 13 points and 12 assists; that will mean the NU defense is collapsing on his drives and he's setting up open 3-point shooters. As Northwestern fans can attest, a team that shoots 40+% from three while taking a ton of threes is extremely difficult to beat.

If Michigan doesn't shoot well from three, it's difficult to see them winning tonight, mostly because they'll need a lot of points to keep up with Northwestern's offense. Michigan is last in the Big Ten in defense during conference play (yes, worse than Northwestern), and considering the way NU has lit up mediocre defensive teams all season, NU should be able to score well over a point per possession. John Shurna in particular should be able to return to form tonight, as he has the great fortune of going against Evan "The Matador" Smotrycz, whom Shurna embarrassed during the game in Evanston. 

Mostly Irrelevant Historical Trends

- Bill Carmody is 4-4 at Crisler Arena during his time at Northwestern, his best winning percentage at any opposing Big Ten arena. 

- A win tonight will give Northwestern their second consecutive season sweep of Michigan; which would be the first time Bill Carmody has accomplished that feat at NU (he has had a six game winning streak against Minnesota and a five game winning streak against Purdue, but he's never managed to win 4 in 2 seasons against anyone). Now, the last time NU swept a team two years in a row (and I wasted way too much of my day researching this): they technically swept Minnesota in 1976 and 1977, but they only won two of those games; Minnesota beat NU both times in 1977, but had to forfeit for reasons made unclear in the NU media guide, so NU officially won both games. The last time it really happened was all the way back in 1958 and 1959, against Michigan. Wow.  I always knew Northwestern has been historically god-awful in basketball, but if anything drives home just how bad they've been, it's that stat.

- Gus Johnson is calling tonight's game for BTN; NU is 0-4 the last two years with Gus on the call.