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The Morning After: Northwestern's Road Between The Two Michigan Games

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

The Northwestern team that lost 68-46 at Michigan Wednesday night is not the same Northwestern team that laid down in a brutal Big Ten-opening loss to the Wolverines. In that January 3 game, Michigan did whatever it wanted on the offensive end, hounded the Wildcats into an incoherent attack and rode a hot shooting start from Trey Burke en route to a comfortable 28-point win. There are few worse ways to start the league portion of your schedule. The fact that it was this year’s Big Ten, the clear-cut best league in the country, made the UM beat down doubly discouraging.

The next game, at Minnesota, did little to lift Northwestern’s spirits. Again the Wildcats were thrown into a top-10 buzzsaw, this time against a viciously proficient offensive rebounding group. Late in the second half, the Gophers’ walk-ons were tossing alley-oops on uncontested fast breaks, sneering and preening until the game clock hit zero. The Wildcats had lost their first two Big Ten games; but these were more than normal losses. With the exception of a pace-killing first half at the Barn, Northwestern’s games could be characterized by quick and seamless destruction.

A win at Penn State was a positive turn; that’s about all you can say about winning at Penn State. Then Iowa, still searching for its first conference win, ransacked NU at Welsh-Ryan, swiftly erasing whatever positivity could be gleaned from the 14-point win in Happy Valley, and the Wildcats were back to square one.

The next part still doesn’t register cleanly in my basketball consciousness. The Wildcats won at Illinois, gave Indiana all it could handle at home, then upset Minnesota. Playing up to your competition level from time to time is one thing. Maintaining that level for three consecutive games, both on the road and at home, is a different matter entirely. A three-game sample outreaches the customary ups and downs of a college hoops season. Three games is more than just emotional fuel or hot shooting. Northwestern was playing its best basketball of the season, and showed no signs of slowing down.

The Wildcats, as the Wildcats are wont to do, forfeited their faint NCAA hopes in a road loss at Nebraska, which not only hurt in a momentum-killing, wow-this-sucks kind of way, but also because the three previous performances – in which Northwestern squared up and battled two of the league’s best teams – felt like nothing more than a unsustainable blip in a long conference season. Northwestern lost at Nebraska, and hey, shouldn’t we have expected that anyway?

It was on these skeptical terms that NU entered Wednesday night’s game at the Crisler Center. The Wolverines opened up the week with a rather special achievement: for the first time since the 1992-93 season, Michigan found itself on top of the AP Poll. Not since the Fab Five took the college hoops world by storm has national championship buzz – with basketball, not football – felt so legitimate. An animated crowd stuffed the bleachers, ready to provide sixth-man assistance to  their No. 1 Wolverines, even if John Beilein’s group was plenty capable of fending off the Wildcats themselves.

You already know the rest. Michigan dumped Northwestern swiftly and painlessly. It blitzed the Wildcats with the nation’s most efficient offense, and the nation’s best point guard, all of it operating like a well-oiled machine kicked into high gear. The No. 1 team in the country did what the No. 1 team in the country was supposed to do – what it did to Northwestern four weeks ago in its own gym.

But for some reason, this game didn’t resonate the same way. Michigan imposed its powerful offense and improving defense early, much like the first meeting. The difference is, Northwestern didn’t give in. The Wildcats stood tall, absorbed Michigan’s fiercest punches and hung around long enough to force Beilein to call a timeout in frustration before the first official media stoppage of the second half. Alex Martotullio harassed ball handlers at the point of attack, Mike Turner and Alex Olah fought tirelessly for low-post positioning and Jared Swopshire provided his steady production on the offensive end to go along with solid defensive work on Michigan’s explosive perimeter rotation.

The final score glosses over the specifics, and the Wildcats may or may not use these minor green shoots to launch a successful stretch of conference play. Michigan handled its opponent, Northwestern, without breaking a sweat. That’s nothing different from what we saw in the conference opener. So what, exactly, has changed? The remainder of the league schedule should prove how much, if at all, the Wildcats have improved since the first UM game.

And until we figure out this whole time-travel thing, I’ll reserve my futuristic insight on the Wildcats’ chances down the stretch. Wednesday night was a moment to reflect on where the Wildcats are – individually and collectively – and where they were the last time they faced this same group at home. The changes are more intangible than anything else – the kind of stuff you only notice with a critical eye for body language and other small visual cues.

The Wildcats have endured a rough Big Ten season. From the Minnesota win to the Nebraska loss, this brutal conference has thrown Northwestern through an absolute grinder. Those experiences have matured the Wildcats, guided them, effectively developed them into a more capable group. Against Michigan, the changes didn’t shine through in a box score or brief post-game report. The evidence was on the court.