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Northwestern vs. Michigan Basketball Preview

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The Associated Press releases its national college basketball poll every Monday afternoon. Each week, fans and writers work up a lather making arguments about which teams should be ranked number one. But because the system is inherently subjective, and because different people have different ideas about what their top 25 actually reflects – Which team has the best resume? Who’s playing the best basketball right now? Would team X beat team Y on a neutral court? – the rankings are nothing more than a hazy portrait of a handful of sportswriters’ opinions, mashed together into one unified hierarchy. Michigan found itself on top of that hierarchy Monday for the first time since Nov. 30, 1992.

It has been a slow and enduring rise for the Wolverines, but they’ve made it back to the top, and the way John Beilein’s team is playing these days, this might just be the one team capable of bringing some stability to the No. 1 ranking this season. To keep its spot, Michigan will have to get by Northwestern Wednesday before a huge showdown with Indiana Saturday. I’m not sure you could paint a better trap-game scenario: freshly-crowned the No. 1 team in the country, with an immensely challenging road game waiting on the weekend, and a team you absolutely obliterated earlier this season coming to town for a midweek tune-up? I’m just saying.

Recapping the First Meeting: Michigan 94, Northwestern 66

Both teams entered their first conference game of the season with very different expectations. After losing Drew Crawford and Reggie Hearn to injury, Northwestern needed a collective scoring uptick from complementary players who, to that point, weren’t ready for the challenges posed by the Wolverines – a team that had yet to lose through 14 games, looking dominant throughout a sterling nonconference showing. The Wolverines made their Big Ten championship aspirations clear from the opening tip. Trey Burke hit four threes and shot 9-of-16 overall for 23 points. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 21. By halftime, Michigan had run its lead to 21, and the rest was clinical.

When it was over, Michigan left Welsh-Ryan Arena with a 28-point win, Northwestern came away with one of the most humbling and overall demoralizing performances in recent memory, along with a newfound appreciation for the prowess of this retooled Wolverines squad. An ugly game like that sets the tone for the rest of the conference season. For Michigan, the rout spoke volumes about their very real Big Ten and national title hopes. Beilein’s team handled the Wildcats with effortless grace and seamless execution. It was a complete and utter beatdown.

Michigan’s Big Ten Progress 

If not for a slow start at Ohio State two weekends ago, Michigan might well have been the lone undefeated DI team left in college basketball. The Wolverines nearly clawed back against the Buckeyes, eventually falling by three, but a close loss in Columbus – for all the Buckeyes’ flaws this season; a lack of secondary scorers around DeShaun Thomas chief among them – doesn’t say much about Michigan beyond the fact that the Wolverines are, like every other team in the country, vulnerable to the pressures of rivalry road games.

One loss shouldn’t obscure what’s been a solid conference season to date; Michigan handled both Illinois and Minnesota on the road with minimal fuss. It also destroyed Iowa and Nebraska at the Crisler Center. All of which leaves the Wolverines at 6-1 heading into Wednesday’s tilt with Northwestern. There aren’t many chinks in the armor here. Michigan is, with little doubt, the best team in the country right now. Its 6-1 record in the Big Ten speaks to its well-rounded dominance, and the rest of the conference schedule – which includes road gams at Wisconsin and Indiana – provides more opportunities for big wins.

Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. Michigan’s Frontcourt

While we wait for news on Jordan Morgan’s injured right ankle, this analysis will focus more on forwards Mitch McGary and Jon Horford, who should see increased playing time in the event Morgan a) is unable to play or b) is not fully healthy. Shutting down the nation’s best backcourt – which features national player of the year candidate Burke, versatile 6-6 combo guard Hardaway Jr. and sharp-shooting freshman Nik Stauskas – is an unrealistic goal. Burke is going to get his points, Hardaway Jr. will pass and penetrate from the perimeter and Stauskas will knock down open shots.

The low-block is a more reasonable proposition for Northwestern’s big men. McGary and Horford are capable defenders with improving offensive games – McGary in particular is really starting to coming along lately – but if there is a hole in Michigan’s current invincibility, it’s in the frontcourt. Taking advantage of that relative weakness is going to require Olah, who has struggled in recent games against Minnesota and Nebraska, to recapture the spark that made him an effective low-post force against Baylor and Stanford and to a lesser degree Indiana. The Wolverines block a startlingly low percentage (8.1, which ranks 223rd nationally) of opponents shot attempts, don’t force many steals and have allowed a 46.3 shooting percentage inside the arc during conference play, good for fifth in the Big Ten, which isn’t bad as much as it is mediocre. But for this balanced Michigan team, there’s room for improvement. Olah has the size and potential to attack the painted area and test that potential defensive weak point.

He’s flashed a deft inside touch and nimble post moves at various points, but Olah’s recent performance suggests he still hasn’t developed enough consistency to be trusted as a go-to low-post scorer on a nightly basis. But if you consider Michigan could be without its best overall defender, Morgan – or at least without him at full strength – Olah could have more room to operate as an effective scorer and passer in a game where Northwestern desperately needs steady interior offense.

Prediction: Michigan 88, Northwestern 71

When these teams met up in Evanston earlier this year, Michigan was still feeling out a revamped lineup and still rejiggering Beilein’s traditionally perimeter-heavy system. Beilein has made several major tweaks to adapt to a massive influx of freshmen talent, and so far, you can’t argue with the results. The Wolverines are further along in that adjustment process at this stage of the season. Burke is playing not just like the best point guard in the country, but the best player overall. McGary is developing, offensively and defensively, at a rapid pace. Glenn Robinson III offers a blend of imposing athleticism and refined offensive skill – all packaged tidily in a 6-6, 210-pound frame – that you just don’t see from college freshmen very often these days.

You can pick nits and point out little statistical oddities that say Northwestern could, conceivably, if this and that happens, put a real scare into the Wolverines. And the trap-game scenario described above sounds good if you’re looking for something to grasp onto before an impossibly tough road game. But that’s where the comparison ends. Northwestern doesn’t have the offensive firepower or athleticism to keep pace with the No. 1 team in the country. These teams are operating on different levels right now. Michigan looks like the best team in the country; Northwestern can’t beat Nebraska on the road. It really is that simple.

*For more on Michigan's players, check out our preview from the first matchup in Evanston.