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Northwestern vs. Michigan Basketball Preview

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

Savor Northwestern’s Gator bowl victory as long as possible. After all, it’s been more than 60 years since the program last won one of these things. But if you can spare two hours for the Wildcats basketball team, I recommend you flip over to tonight’s showdown with No. 2 Michigan, the first game of Northwestern’s Big Ten season. The Wildcats do not enter this game at full strength. JerShonn Cobb is suspended. Drew Crawford will miss the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury. Reggie Hearn is out. Sanjay Lumpkin is a strong candidate to take a medical redshirt. When you count up all the casualties, and scan the roster for active bodies, what you get is a grim picture of a depleted roster bereft of scoring punch and quality depth. The Wildcats are a shell of themselves at this stage. Michigan, well, isn’t.

The Wolverines are playing efficient offensive basketball, their defense is more committed than ever before under John Beilein and their freshmen have made one of the smoothest collective transitions of any recruiting class in the country. Only Duke has looked better than the Wolverines so far this season, and they haven’t even hit their stride. Once Michigan figures out where all the new pieces fit, and how to best maximize everyone’s talents in Beilein’s adjusted system, this team will soar. This is a decided mismatch, both talent-wise and from a sheer depth standpoint. It is the best team Northwestern has (and probably will) face all season.

Three Players To Watch 

Trey Burke (Sophomore, point guard)

I don’t typically deal in hyperbole, and I’m resistant to hand out superlative compliments without a deserving justification. But I’m not stretching the truth when I say Trey Burke is the best point guard in the country. Burke provides everything you want in a point guard – sound ballhandling, savvy passing, leadership – and he executes all of those baseline skills extremely efficiently; Burke’s 41.3 assist rate ranks 12th in the country and he’s not turning over nearly as often as he was last season. Those basic attributes, completed efficiently and with minimal error, comprises an effective point guard.

And that’s without taking into account Burke’s scoring, which may be his biggest asset on the offensive end of the floor. Aside from the small concern with his minutes load – Burke is on the floor for 82.9 percent of available minutes – Burke is producing an average of 13.5 points per 100 possessions, good for 17th in the country. He’s also being smart with where he takes his shots – Burke’s effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for three-point attempts, ranks in the nation’s top-100. Burke is a well-rounded point guard with an added scoring boost, and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.

Nik Stauskas (Freshman, guard)

Of all of Michigan’s big-name freshman imports, none has taken to Beilein’s system as functionally well as Stauskas. In the interest of sparing you a bundle of glorifying statistical characteristics, I’ll offer you this video, which captures Stauskas putting on a three-point shooting clinic in what appears to be his backyard court. He converts 45 of 50 attempts, which amounts to a 90 percent make rate. He hasn’t been quite as dangerous from beyond the arc in games this season – Stauskas has hit 39 of 69 three-point shots, or 56.5 percent – but make no mistake, Stauskas is one of the best three-point shooters in the country.

What’s more, he’s totally cognizant of his best strength, and has learned to extract maximum value from his shot selection accordingly. 65 percent of Stauskas shots come from beyond the three-point stripe, compared to just 15 percent being wasted on less productive two-point jumpers, according to hoop-math.com. Which means Stauskas isn’t wasting shots that yield lower average point totals, because when you shoot this well from long range, well, why would you shoot it from anywhere else?

Tim Hardaway Jr. (Junior, guard) 

An influx of talent and Beilein’s precise tactical adjustments to fit that talent are the main reasons behind Michigan’s early success. Another angle is Hardaway Jr.’s improvement on both ends of the floor. He’s making better decisions, learning to leverage higher point totals by playing to his strengths on the offensive end and dedicated himself to bolstering the Wolverines’ rebounding efforts.

He is blossoming into the NBA prospect many believed he was when he stepped on campus two seasons ago, but that took a step back last season in almost every respect. Now, with a new cast of characters and a renewed sense of confidence, Hardaway Jr. is using his wide arsenal of skills and immense athletic capabilities in productive ways and making progress by the game. What makes Hardaway Jr. such a tough guard – besides his bouncy athleticism, proficient perimeter skills and deft scoring touch – is his size. He stands 6’6’’, 205 pounds, but is agile enough to knife through the lane and finish in a flash. Hardaway Jr. offers the devastating mixture of a guard’s skill set in a forward’s body, which is a nightmare for any perimeter defender, but an even greater burden for Northwestern’s smallish backcourt.

*Note: Hardaway Jr. is questionable for tonight's game with an ankle injury.

Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. Michigan’s Frontcourt

The disadvantages on the perimeter are glaring – none more than Sobolewski on Burke. Northwestern can’t hold down Stauskas, Burke and Hardaway Jr. for 40 minutes without sacrificing active help defenders in the frontcourt. Michigan’s guards are going to get open looks, and they’re probably going to make a substantial number of those open looks. Northwestern can only do so much to close out and contest those long-range shots. Eventually, the Wolverines will look to work through Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary on the low block, and it will be incumbent upon Olah to either a) deny entry passes or b) prevent them from establishing favorable pivot angles and positioning.

If the Wolverines can establish a fluid inside-out attack, with Stauskas, Burke and Stauskas converting three-point shots and Morgan and McGary getting easy buckets in the painted area, Michigan could have this game in hand by the end of the first half. Northwestern can frustrate the Wolverines’ fourth-ranked offense by taking away one of those basic offensive components, and because the Wildcats are seriously lacking in effective perimeter defenders, Olah, Mike Tuener and Jared Swopshire stand a better chance at limiting a fluid interior attack.

It really comes down to this: Michigan is well-oiled offensive beast. Northwestern does not defend the three-point shot (Michigan’s strength) well enough to eliminate that facet of the Wolverines’ offensive gameplan. The Wildcats are better off concentrating their efforts on interior defense, where Northwestern is limiting opposing offenses to just 42.7 percent shooting. Deny Morgan and McGary in the paint, pray Stauskas and Burke left their shooting strokes back in Ann Arbor, and, hey, you never know.