When the Michigan men’s basketball team played Northwestern in Crisler Arena on Jan. 10, the Wolverines gave up a 37-28 halftime lead and allowed the Wildcats to get back into a game Michigan looked positioned to run away with.
The game raised a lot of questions, but the most prevalent one was: How did Michigan give up a 17-point lead?
The key to making sure nothing like that happens tonight in Evanston, according to Michigan coach John Beilein, is simple: defense.
“They got several unguarded threes when we would say, ‘you got him,’ and the other guy would say, ‘you got him,’ ” Beilein said. “And nobody took him.”
Of course, the reason the defense suffered is the same reason it has suffered all year. When the Wolverines (4-5 Big Ten, 11-10 overall) start missing their shots, they become preoccupied and it causes them to play distracted defense.
In the first half of the Northwestern game, Michigan shot 50 percent from the field and held the Wildcats to 34 percent shooting.
In the second half, the two teams nearly switched places — the Wolverines shot 34 percent and Northwestern (3-6, 14-7) shot 56 percent.
But it wasn’t just missed shots that distracted Michigan on defense. Turnovers played a major role as well. The Wolverines committed 11 of their 18 turnovers in the second half.
“We were scoring and we were feeling good,” Beilein said. “Then all of a sudden, we started turning it over and we had trouble going from offense to defense.”
Beilein was quick to point out that the game was not just about Michigan shooting itself in the foot. Northwestern, he said, throws off a lot of teams the way they play.
“If you ask Big Ten coaches, many of them would agree with me that this is the most difficult prep of the year,” Beilein said. “Because they play so differently and right now they’re playing as well as any Northwestern team we’ve faced.”
The good news for the Wolverines is that their defense has been much improved since that game. Though they have gone 3-3 in their six games since then, they have only allowed one opponent, Connecticut, to score over 60 points.
The main reason for the turnaround, according to senior DeShawn Sims, is confidence.
“The defense is there,” he said. “We just needed to implement some swagger, some confidence. We just needed to pick up our swagger in general.”
Part of maintaining that swagger is taking the attitude of getting back at Northwestern for taking what the Wolverines consider was rightfully theirs: a victory back on Jan. 10
“We definitely owe them one,” Sims said. “Definitely seeking redemption.”