Wolverines prepare for second Northwestern matchup in eight days
It may be an overlooked rivalry, but the Michigan and Northwestern men’s basketball teams have matched up in some of the teams’ best games in recent memory.
A miraculous full-court pass and layup at the buzzer gave the Wildcats a two-point win last year, solidifying their resume and eventually earning them the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
A year before, it was Michigan’s late-game heroics that brought a postseason bid into focus. With three seconds left in overtime, former wing Zak Irvin drilled a game-winner to beat Northwestern in the 2016 Big Ten Tournament. A day later, the Wolverines beat top-seeded Indiana to essentially secure their tournament berth.
Yet, the usual drama was absent in last Tuesday’s series continuum. It was instead an ugly basketball game that limped to finality.
In it, Michigan’s inexperience against zone defenses was glaring. Northwestern’s 2-3 matchup zone made the Wolverines’ offense look directionless, falling too often into the crux of forced improvisation late in the shot clock.
But the Wildcats’ scoring attack was even more dormant. Against a defense that proved to be as strong as its own, Northwestern sputtered to 38-percent shooting and 16 turnovers. Each team had five-minute stretches without a point in the first half. The Wolverines, eventually, schlepped to a 58-47 victory.
“We didn’t make shots, we didn't make foul shots, but we held them and that was the key,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after the game.
Eight days later, the same key applies, as the 20th-ranked Wolverines (8-4 Big Ten, 19-6 overall) embark to Chicago to rematch Northwestern (5-6, 14-10) on Tuesday night.
The quick turnaround between games indicates that this final matchup of the regular season might look like the first. Both teams pride themselves on defense and have played only once since the last meeting. But their respective outlooks have changed slightly in the past week.
Forty-eight hours after the Wildcats couldn’t buy a bucket in Ann Arbor, they scorched Wisconsin with an 18-1 start for an eventual win last Thursday. Center Dererk Pardon, who was relatively quiet against Michigan, was perfect from the floor with 17 points and added three blocks.
It was a must-have for Northwestern, which is making a late crawl into the Tournament picture after a slow start. Three wins in four games has Beilein cautious about the Wildcats.
“Offensively, they put on a show, up 18-1 on Wisconsin,” Beilein said. “As we all know from last year, they have a very talented team that has turned the corner now.
“I see no reason why they can’t go on a run like we did last year. They certainly have shown in the past that they can beat anybody in this league.”
But Beilein can’t be as enthused about his team’s most recent performance.
Michigan’s issues with slow starts and free throw shooting nearly cost them Saturday against Minnesota. The Wolverines went 12-for-28 from the line — that’s right: they missed 16 free throws — which allowed the Golden Gophers to send the game into overtime.
“We just keep working on technique and confidence that we’ll do it a little different,” Beilein said. “We end every practice with these pressure free throws, and I have an idea tomorrow to make more pressure — to end each practice with a make instead of a miss, which happens too many times.”
And just as it did against Northwestern, Michigan again looked sluggish to begin play. Minnesota controlled and led the entire first half — the Wolverines have gotten outscored in the opening frame in four of their last six games.
“There are anxieties at the front end of our game that are getting in our way,” Beilein said. “It’s a lack of focus at the beginning of the game.”
So how does Michigan avoid those issues Tuesday? It starts with assertiveness and new plays, according to freshman forward Isaiah Livers.
“Just being more aggressive off the catch. Northwestern’s zone — you have to catch it and slice through,” Livers said. “They have a terrific zone defense. (We’re) working on sets that they’ve never seen before — some I’ve never seen before today.”
The Wolverines will discover the efficacy of those sets Tuesday night. For them, it’s another chance to improve before March. For Northwestern, it’s a must-win.
And if history is any indication, this game could again come down to the wire.