EVANSTON — As Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke held the ball at the top of the key with the clock winding down at the end of the first half, Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted in cheers. The second-ranked Wolverines were sitting on a 21-point lead and the pockets of people wearing maize and blue in the stands grew louder than anybody wearing purple — a rarity in any conference game.
“Let’s Go Blue. Let’s Go Blue. Let’s Go Blue.”
The Michigan men’s basketball team could’ve easily been playing in Crisler Arena if it weren’t for the infamous half-shaded-in purple floor and the cozy confines of the Wildcats’ home court, but the Wolverines certainly played like it was just another home game. With the crowd on its side, Michigan trounced Northwestern, 94-66, in its Big Ten opener and improved to 14-0 for the first time since the 1985-86 season.
“(The crowd) certainly (was) obvious here,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We find it in a lot of places — when we played West Virginia, when we played in the Preseason NIT. We are an incredibly global university and we have alums everywhere. They show up everywhere, and we’re so proud to represent them.”
While other Big Ten teams struggled on the road in the conference opener — Michigan and No. 5 Indiana were the only road teams to avoid a loss — the Wolverines had no issue dismantling the Wildcats (0-1 Big Ten, 9-5 overall) on the road. In the last meeting between the teams in Evanston, Michigan edged out an overtime victory and scored just 67 points in the win.
This time, the Wolverines (1-0, 14-0) dropped 51 points in the first half and had no problem maintaining the offense in the second stanza. Michigan ran the court in transition in the second half, several times finishing the fast break with a dunk to keep the Wolverine fans on their feet.
“I was surprised (at the crowd),” said freshman guard Nik Stauskas. “The way (my teammates) were explaining it, I thought it was going to be everyone against us, that we weren’t going to have any fans. To see all the Michigan fans, it was a lot of fun for sure.”
In the first half, Michigan got out on an early 13-2 run led by Burke, who had 13 of the team’s first 16 points. The sophomore shredded Northwestern’s defense with his crossover, easily getting to the basket early in the first half or drawing a double team and finding an open teammate. Burke led all scorers with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, dished out five dimes and had four steals.
“He’s really a joy to watch, there (are) some times I just sit back and realized the growth of this young man in so many ways,” Beilein said. “(Burke has) got a presence out there, he’s got a great ability to know when he can score and when he can find other people, and his assist-to-turnover ratio tells it all. His percentages, the job he did on (Northwestern guard Dave Sobolewski), he does it every day.”
Burke was flanked by Tim Hardaway, Jr., who tallied 21 points. Hardaway, who returned after sitting out against Central Michigan with an ankle injury, showed no signs of discomfort in his ankle as he nailed his first four shots — all 3-pointers. The junior chipped in four assists, as well.
In addition to Burke and Hardaway, the rest of Michigan’s starters were in double figures. Stauskas continued his impressive numbers with 10 points, freshman forward Glenn Robinson III also added 10 points and five rebounds, and redshirt junior Jordan Morgan added a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
While the Wildcats were without their two leading scorers — senior Drew Crawford is out for the season and senior Reggie Hearn twisted his ankle in a loss against Stanford on Dec. 21 — they were led by Jared Swopshire, who had 11 points and five rebounds. Swopshire and Alex Olah challenged the Michigan forwards in the paint, but the Wolverines’ depth won out.
Led by Morgan, the Michigan big men easily outrebounded Northwestern, 41-25. Though freshman Mitch McGary added four points and eight rebounds, he struggled to finish shots against contact and showed signs of inexperience against the stronger, more physical Big Ten post players.
“(Morgan’s) 13 rebounds are great, and (assistant coach) Bacari (Alexander) has done a wonderful job on positioning and rebounding. With (Northwestern’s) youth — (it has) a big young center — it’s important he gets in there and establishes position because we’re not going to make every shot. He’s getting better and getting the rebound — he’s always been pretty good — and getting much better at finishing the rebound.”