A little over a month ago, having been pushed to the limit for the first — and still, the only — time all season, Michigan coach John Beilein adjusted his tie and sat down, pulling the microphone towards him as he started talking.
“If anybody has witnessed two of the last three games here, that bank shot — the last two games here, in this arena, that bank shot goes in at the end,” he started. “So it’s a great game. This was something that didn’t worry me. Part of the process, I knew, we’re going to have to go through games like this if we’re going to be good.”
The arena in question was Welsh-Ryan. The bank shot was Ryan Taylor’s. The game was a 62-60 win over Northwestern in which the Wolverines had been pushed to their limit and somehow came out alive thanks to Taylor’s 30-footer clanging off the back rim at the buzzer.
The Wildcats have developed a penchant for pushing Michigan of late. They handed the Wolverines their last regular season loss — a 61-52 affair in Rosemont, Ill. last year — and came closer than anyone else to delivering their first of this year. On Sunday, Northwestern will get another shot.
With that in mind, The Daily broke down the tape from December’s game to find three questions for Michigan to answer.
How does Zavier Simpson respond to Northwestern daring him to shoot?
Down the stretch in Evanston, the Wildcats played Simpson off the floor. All it took was sagging far off the junior guard, giving him a wide open shot he had almost no choice but take.
The effect was twofold, and deadly for the Wolverines’ offense. Not only was Simpson missing shots, but his defender could stand in the lane, cutting off potential drives, making a Simpson 3-pointer not just the best option, but essentially the only option for Michigan at times.
Simpson, a 28.9 percent shooter from 3-point range, took five of those shots. He missed all of them.
The idea of not having Simpson — a stalwart defender and the Wolverines’ leader — on the floor in crunch-time is anathema to anyone who has followed Michigan basketball for the last year. But Chris Collins gave Beilein no choice.
“When (Simpson) started hitting the front of the rim, he’d been in there a long time and I said, ‘We’ve gotta do something here,’ ” Beilein said after the first game. “Because we were playing 4-on-5. They were just daring them to shoot. And as a result, we run with Eli (Brooks).”
Simpson has continued shooting when teams have sagged off, and it has paid off. Since that game, he’s at 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. On Thursday at Illinois, he erased one of those stats that people repeat because it seems unfathomable, making his first off-the-dribble jumper of the season, and it was a three.
Doing that, if anything, only underscored the value he brings.
“Zavier Simpson, in my opinion, is the MVP of the league to this point,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood on Thursday. “Just simply because if you took him away from their team—you saw what happened when they took him out.”
Can Michigan slow down Dererk Pardon?
Pardon is 6-foot-8 and does much of his scoring inside. So, it stands to reason that junior center Jon Teske — a 7-foot-1 behemoth of a rim protector — would be a good matchup against Northwestern’s center.
In the initial matchup, it was anything but. Pardon was the Wildcats’ most-efficient scorer, shooting 8-of-9 from two-point range and hitting the second three of his entire career. When the Wolverines gave him an inch of space, hedging on pick-and-rolls or helping on drivers, Pardon gobbled it up.
As for the matchup with Teske, Pardon managed to score down low by somehow getting over, and around, the big man. An array of footwork in 1-on-1 situations was enough to leave Teske half-a-second behind, negating the height advantage and letting Pardon get a clean shot off.
He gave one of the Big Ten’s best defensive big man fits, and it’s hard not to be impressed with that.
Eventually, he forced Michigan to start doubling him — something the Wolverines have been reluctant to do to anyone. After that, Pardon took just two shots from the field, both of which he made.
“Pardon had a great first half and he’s really crafty,” Beilein said on Dec. 4. “He’s a good player. But Jon in the second half was really good on him. He’s gotten so physical, and then his weakness going into this year was defensive rebounding in a crowd. And he’s getting his body on people. His hands are up.”
In the first matchup, the Wildcats scored less than a point per possession — an efficiency trainwreck outside of Pardon. If Teske wins that matchup this time around, upsetting Michigan in Ann Arbor becomes a near impossibility.
Will Northwestern have an answer for Ignas Brazdeikis?
Since that game last month, Brazdeikis’ play has leveled out a little. In the first nine games of the season, the freshman forward had six KenPom MVPs. After notching his sixth in a 23-point performance against the Wildcats, he has only one.
That’s not to say Brazdeikis has played poorly since then, merely that a red-hot start has seen some regression. The word is out on him now, and teams have adjusted their defenses to account for it.
Chris Collins will likely be the next coach to do so.
The first time around, Northwestern’s defense didn’t give Brazdeikis enough attention, or really even close to it. Uniformly, its defenders ball-watched, hedged a little too hard for a little too long or were a step too late in recovery from help when matched up against him. It resulted in a slew of open lanes, as Brazdeikis consistently had a step on his defender when he drove.
Since then, teams have shifted — mainly by emphasizing how effective Brazdeikis can be when given just an extra inch or two of space. Watch the head of the defender matched up on Brazdeikis. It’s a subtle, but effective difference, constantly looking for the Brazdeikis and being aware of his movement.
That, in turn, allows for faster recovery once the ball is in Brazdeikis’ hands. With less space to work, Brazdeikis can be forced into a tough shot.
Play defense like that, consistently, on the talented freshman and the Wildcats might just have a shot.