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Northwestern vs. Michigan preview: analysis, players to watch, prediction

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The Wildcats desperately need a win against the red-hot Wolverines.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Northwestern Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t get much bigger than this.

On the verge of history, Northwestern enters the final week of the regular season with two more chances to make an impression on the NCAA Tournament selection committee before the Big Ten Tournament. The Wildcats, who have lost five of seven games and have gone from 7-2 in conference play and a strong 7-seed to 9-7 and hanging on for dear life, desperately need at least one more win to stay on the right side of the bubble.

The good: both games will be played at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The bad: the two opponents couldn’t get much tougher.

The final stretch starts on Wednesday evening when the Michigan Wolverines come to Evanston looking to pick up their sixth win in seven games and surge ahead of Northwestern in the Big Ten standings. Two of the last three games between these teams have gone to OT, including the legendary Tre Demps game the last time Michigan played at Welsh-Ryan.

March basketball with everything on the line. Let’s do this.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Wolverines.

Michigan at a Glance

  • Record: 19-10 (9-7 Big Ten, 2-7 on the road)
  • RPI: 46 (NU is 50)
  • KenPom: 27 (NU is 36)
  • Good wins (ranks from KenPom): vs. No. 32 Marquette (neutral), vs. No. 16 SMU (neutral), vs. No. 50 Michigan State, @No. 49 Indiana, vs. No. 21 Wisconsin, vs. No. 12 Purdue
  • Bad losses: @No. 71 Iowa, @No. 62 Illinois, vs. No. 64 Ohio State
  • Head coach: John Beilein, tenth season. 208-133 with Michigan, 97-81 in Big Ten conference play. Previous D1 stops: Canisius College, Richmond, West Virginia.

Players to Watch

  • Derrick Walton Jr., senior guard (14.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.0 apg)

Walton Jr. has had a breakout senior year and turned himself into one of the best players, not just guards, in the conference. He’s having a career year in virtually every statistic, especially when it comes to advanced metrics. Walton Jr. is the leader of an explosive operation for Michigan, playing 34 minutes a game for the eighth-most efficient offense in the country. He gets to the line frequently and hits 87 percent of his free throws. He can get to the rim and also shoots 42 percent from beyond the arc. He’s a good passer, doesn’t turn it over too often and is an excellent rebounder for his size. Walton Jr.’s O-Rating of 125 is fourth in the conference (but only second on his team!). Basically, he’s become a flat-out star at the point guard position. It will be interesting to see if Bryant McIntosh guards Walton Jr. or if Vic Law gets the assignment instead.

  • Moritz Wagner, sophomore forward (12.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 42% from deep)

Wagner is one of the more fun players to watch in the Big Ten and has been on fire as of late. The 6-foot-11, 240-pound German is the best three-point shooter in the starting lineup and can also score in the paint. He’s been a huge part of Michigan’s emergence in the second half of conference play, putting up 19, 21 and 24 points in February wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Purdue, respectively. Wagner plays the 5 position but is a true stretch big man who has recorded double-digit rebounds just once this season.

  • Zak Irvin, senior guard, (12.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.1 apg)

Irvin is probably best remembered by Wildcat fans for hitting the shot that ended Northwestern’s 2015-16 season. A versatile wing with good size, Irvin is the other senior in Michigan’s starting lineup. He’s been good offensively for most of the year, scoring in double-figures in 19 of the Wolverines’ first 21 games, but has started to struggle down the stretch. Irvin’s point totals in Michigan’s last eight games, starting with a loss to Michigan State on January 29th in which he was held scoreless: 0, 5, 3, 5, 18, 10, 16, 4. He’s shooting just 26% from three in Big Ten play but makes up for it with solid defense.

  • D.J. Wilson, junior forward (10.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg)

A bench-warmer during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, Wilson has come alive as a junior and ran with the starting power forward spot. Like Wagner, Wilson is big (6-foot-10, 240) and can shoot (39% from deep). While he isn’t quite as good of an outside shooter as his German counterpart, Wilson is a better rebounder and shot-blocker. He’s been the second-most efficient offensive player in the Big Ten during conference play (126.3 O-Rating). Watch out for Wilson on Wednesday.

Game Analysis

This is a really tough game to call. Michigan is clearly playing better basketball right now, but there are a number of factors working in Northwestern’s favor. Most importantly, the Wildcats are at home and the crowd figures to be as big and loud as its been all year. And while the Wolverines have been nearly unbeatable at the Crisler Center, they have struggled to pick up road wins. Also, Scottie Lindsey looked the best he’s looked since returning from mono against Indiana. His stroke isn’t all the way back, but he was active on both ends and should continue to improve.

Both sides of the floor present intriguing matchups in this one. When Michigan has the ball, it’s the most efficient offense in the Big Ten going against the third-most efficient defense. Northwestern needs to prioritize preventing open looks on the perimeter, but can’t let the Wolverines get driving lanes or beat the Wildcats up in the paint. It will be interesting to see how Chris Collins matches up with Michigan’s duo of versatile big men; Sanjay Lumpkin will have a size disadvantage against either Wilson or Wagner and Dererk Pardon may struggle when extended out to the three-point line. Perhaps we’ll see an above-average amount of Gavin Skelly. On the other end, a struggling offense (NU hasn’t reached 70 points in any of its last eight games) meets one of the worst defenses in the conference. Northwestern has to continue to move the ball and utilize Pardon down low like it did for the majority of the Indiana game.

Both teams are sitting at 9-7 in the Big Ten and have everything to play for. The winner will greatly improve its tournament resume and jump up to at least sixth place in the conference, while the loser will stay squarely on the bubble and fall to seventh with the possibility of being jumped in the standings by Iowa and/or Illinois down the stretch. The beginning of March brings high stakes for both squads and I bet we see another Northwestern-Michigan thriller. Ultimately, I have to go with the better offense and the hotter team.

Prediction

  • Kenpom prediction: Northwestern 67, Michigan 65
  • My prediction: Michigan 71, Northwestern 69