The Michigan Wolverines are the true embodiment of a bubble team. After getting an impressive win over Purdue, the Wolverines lost to an Ohio State team that is almost certain to miss the tournament for the first time since 2008. Then on Sunday, with a huge opportunity to basically secure their spot in the Big Dance, Jim Beilein's squad fought hard but lost at Maryland, 86-82. As of Feb. 22, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Michigan as a No. 10 seed.
Northwestern, meanwhile, sits on the wrong side of the bubble...for the NIT. The Wildcats, though, have had over a week to recover after a tough loss against Purdue in West Lafayette. The Wildcats' conference season has very much followed the "beat who you should beat, lose to who you should lose to" path, with perhaps the exceptions being a Jan. 12 home win over Wisconsin (a very different the one than it is now) and a Jan. 17 loss to Penn State at Welsh-Ryan.
Now, the Wildcats have likely their second-to-last opportunity to pick up that ever-elusive "quality win" that might propel them into the NIT. Michigan currently sits at 53rd in RPI, 49th in BPI and 48th in KenPom -- right on the tournament precipice. After the Wolverines, Chris Collins's team has Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska to finish out the regular season before the Big Ten Tournament.
Defeating Michigan will be no easy task. The Wolverines are 6-2 at home in Big Ten play, with wins over Maryland and Purdue. Beilein is one of the game's premier coaches and should have his troops prepared for a well-rested Wildcats team. Despite missing arguably its best player, Caris LeVert, for a sizable portion of the year (Michigan is 12-3 when he plays and 7-6 when he doesn't), the hosts have a lot of skill all over the court. Derrick Walton Jr., Duncan Robinson and Zak Irvin all score in double figures, and the Wolverines have plenty of backcourt depth, with Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman both usually gettig substantial minutes of the bench. That's not something Northwestern — which mainly sticks to Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps at the guard spots — can say.
Beilein employs a four-guard attack, and inside he rotates Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle, a tandem Alex Olah dominated last year in The Tre Demps Game. That being said, though, Donnal and Doyle were both underclassmen last season and Donnal, who scored 25 against the Terrapins, has played very well lately. Overall, if Northwestern is to win this game, it will likely be because of the Wildcats' size advantage inside and maybe — just maybe — a little magic from Mr. Demps again.
Three Matchups to Watch
1. Alex Olah vs. Mark Donnal
Olah is back to getting the majority of the minutes inside for Northwestern, while Donnal has established himself as the Wolverines' most reliable big. NU's center holds a major height advantage (7-foot compared to 6-foot-9) but that doesn't mean he necessarily holds the edge on either end of the floor.
Donnal is 16-for-23 from the field over his last two games, including 10-for-13 in his standout performance against Maryland. The junior from Monclova, Ohio knocked down three 3-pointers and displayed a well-rounded game against the Terrapins' taller frontcourt. His ability to face up could challenge Olah, whose mobility has never been a strength.
Olah has a nice track record against Michigan, going for 25 and 12 in last year's win, though most of those points came against Doyle. Olah has the size advantage over Michigan's sophomore, and if he gets good position, Northwestern should look to get him the ball often and early. This is not Purdue's frontcourt.
2. Duncan Robinson vs. the entire defense
Robinson, a transfer from Division III Williams College, is an elite shooter. He knocks down over 47 percent of his three-point attempts (19th in the nation) and has a true shooting percentage of 67.6 (12th). If he gets hot, he can get really hot; Robinson has hit 4 threes in a game on 11 separate occasions this year, and Michigan is 10-1 in those games. Northwestern has to be active on defense, both physically and mentally, in order to stick with him.
3. Derrick Walton Jr. vs. Bryant McIntosh, Tre Demps
Northwestern doesn't score a lot of two-point baskets or get to the foul line very often. In fact, the Wildcats score 35.6 percent of their points from three (38th in the nation), 48.6 percent on twos (236th) and just 15.7 on free throws (342nd out of 351). There's a lot of pressure for the guys on the outside to shoot often and shoot well, and that starts (and usually ends) with McIntosh and Demps. The backcourt duo combines for over 29 points per game, and Demps has been much improved after a very poor start to conference play. At the Crisler Center on Wednesday, they'll have to score efficiently if they want any chance of pulling off the upset.
Walton Jr., meanwhile, is the leading scorer on the team not named LeVert, who's still very much bothered by a leg injury. He's a good defender, a 42.6 percent three-point shooter and a tough guy to guard overall. He's also shooting 80 percent from the free throw line. McIntosh and Demps must be cognizant of where he is at all times as well as close off all lanes for him to drive and kick to the Wolverines' plethora of capable shooters.