Three hundred and one days ago, the Michigan men’s basketball team fell at Northwestern.
The Wolverines entered Allstate Arena on Feb. 6, 2018 still searching for consistency, their NCAA Tournament berth still far from secure. Despite this, they fell flat on their faces, putting forth 40 minutes of sluggish, uninspired basketball in a 61-52 loss to a Wildcat team that would finish 10th in the Big Ten.
Michigan hasn’t lost a regular season game since.
The last 301 days have been a whirlwind, and the Wolverines have blown away almost everything in their path. They won the Big Ten Tournament as a fifth seed and made it all the way to the National Championship Game, losing to a historically great Villanova team. In a November rematch this season, they clobbered the defending national champions.
Michigan is 8-0 and sits at fifth in the most recent AP Top 25 Poll. Wednesday, it drubbed No. 11 North Carolina. Saturday’s victim was No. 19 Purdue. The Wolverines have won every game this season by at least 17 points.
Thus, Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern in Evanston couldn’t look more different than it did last year. As Michigan prepares for its second true road game of the season, it sits firmly in the national conversation. The target on the Wolverines’ backs is bigger than it has been in quite some time.
“I don’t think when we went to Villanova we were the ‘hunted’,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Monday. “ … Now we are, so we’re going to have to be that type of team that’s going to go on the road, knowing that you come in there with that target on your back. … The other team’s got extra juice when you’re playing a highly-rated team.”
Northwestern fits the definition of “trap game” to a tee. Last season’s loss, while a disappointment for the Wolverines, was hardly new — it’s been five years since they won there. Tip-off is set for 9:00 pm, and Beilein has previously noted the challenge of such late-night games for players. The Wildcats’ home arena, the 7,039-seat Welsh-Ryan Arena, reopened this season after renovations, and Beilein expects a vocal, capacity crowd to greet his team.
Meanwhile, Northwestern appears to be somewhat improved from last season, at least in the early going. The Wildcats sit 6-2 and No. 46 in KenPom, up from 85th last season. While one of their losses was a 19-point blowout at the hands of Fresno State, the other was a down-to-the-wire defeat at Indiana this Saturday.
Northwestern will mostly rely on two key players. Forward Vic Law — a former high school teammate of Michigan guard Charles Matthews — scores 17.6 points and records 2.8 assists per game, leading the team in both categories, while hitting 44.7 percent of his treys. Dererk Pardon, the Wildcats’ starting center for the last two seasons, averages close to a double-double.
“They’re playing a little differently,” Beilein said. “They’re playing mostly man-to-man right now, they played almost all zone last year. Really aggressive man-to-man. Their offense is quick, it’s crisp, it’s good. They just had a bad game against Fresno, but other than that, they were ahead 40-20 on an ACC team (Georgia Tech) at halftime. So they’ve got a lot of tools there, and I expect it’s going to be a really difficult game.”
Beilein’s top priority leading up to Northwestern has been preparing for the intangibles. That means making sure his team is ready to take on the specific challenges that conference road games pose — in particular, “trap” games like Tuesday night — and ensuring his team is aware it will receive everyone’s best shot for the rest of the year.
“We went into that hornet’s nest at Villanova and played well, but we gotta go do that again and I don’t think you ever get used to that. You never go win there and say, ‘This is normal,’ ” Beilein said. “ … Handling the crowd, handling another away game, a Big Ten game, that’s probably the biggest thing.”
For all Michigan has achieved in the season’s first four weeks, Tuesday represents its culmination. Win at Northwestern, and the Wolverines will have shown they can do so as the hunters and the hunted alike. Win at Northwestern, and they’ll make a statement that normally wouldn’t be made following a win over a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.
The reason why? It’s been a while since Michigan’s been hunted like this.
“Coach (Beilein) talked about just staying humble,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “We’re going to have a big target on our back just because we went to the national championship and did what we did last year.
“ … Everybody’s going to be coming for us, we just got to be ready.”