On Wednesday night at the Crisler Center, a team will take the floor that features a complicated offense and possesses a 1-3-1 zone as part of its defensive arsenal, complete with a solid freshman point guard and a star scorer who’s the son of an NBA veteran.
And the No. 13 Michigan basketball team will take the court, too.
The Wolverines will see somewhat of a mirror image when they try to win their 11th-straight game at home over visiting Northwestern (1-2 Big Ten, 11-4 overall). Though different from Michigan coach John Beilein’s system, the Princeton offense that the Wildcats’ Bill Carmody runs does have some similar principles.
The Princeton system emphasizes constant motion, lots of screens and, like Beilein’s offense, plenty of back-door cuts. It’s a disciplined attack, and the Wolverines will have even more difficulty defending Northwestern’s version of it — Beilein called Carmody “as innovative as anyone that runs it,” adding more twists than most other Princeton looks.
The Wildcats haven’t played since losing to Illinois at home last Wednesday. They’ve had a full week to prepare for Beilein’s intricacies, while Michigan (3-1, 13-3) has had just two days since playing Wisconsin.
“It’s hard to emulate the speed and just the precision of (the Princeton offense),” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “It’s hard enough for us to guard it, let alone the scout team picking it up in one or two days. … We’ve done a pretty good job with the short time we’ve had. I’m not too worried about it.
“We’ve just got to stick to our principles, and I think we’ll be alright.”
The last time freshman point guard Trey Burke faced a Princeton attack was a year ago, when his dominant Northland High School team was getting blown out in the state finals by Cincinnati LaSalle.
The Wolverines hope the inexperienced Burke will fare better against Northwestern. The Columbus native said the team had two separate film sessions on Tuesday to help prepare for the challenges that the Wildcat offense presents.
Northwestern’s defense, too, should be familiar — the Wildcats are the only other conference team to use the 1-3-1 with any regularity, though they’ve been favoring man-to-man the last couple years, just like the Wolverines.
And after getting the best of Badger veteran Jordan Taylor, Burke will find himself matched up against a fellow freshman on Wednesday night. Like Michigan, Northwestern was concerned about replacing a star point guard coming into the season. But just as Burke has made fans forget about Darius Morris, Wildcat freshman Dave Sobolewski has played well filling in for Juice Thompson.
Sobolewski has displayed a steady hand, committing just 14 turnovers and ranking third in the country with a 4.07 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s a good player,” Burke said. “He takes care of the ball, he’s a great passer, a good shooter. I definitely respect him as an opponent. I’m sure he’s a key part of their offense just as much as Jordan Taylor was. (Beilein) has me aware of him, too.”
Beilein said Sobolewski has done a good job of just fitting in instead of trying to do too much, a task made easier by the presence of forward John Shurna and wing player Drew Crawford.
The pair is the highest-scoring duo in the Big Ten. Shurna leads the conference in scoring with 18.7 points per game, while Crawford — son of longtime NBA referee Danny Crawford — is third, putting in 17.3 points per game. One of the two has led Northwestern in scoring in 13 of the team’s 15 games.
The senior Shurna has been a threat for awhile now, though Michigan limited him to just four points at Crisler Arena last season, though he had just come off a concussion. But Crawford has taken his game up a notch this year.
“You kind of play to his athleticism, but he can really shoot the ball really well too,” Douglass said. “We’ve got to just stay focused, but with Crawford, we’ve got to specifically (focus on him).”
Northwestern has struggled in Big Ten play this season, despite many predicting this edition of the Wildcats to become the first in program history to make the NCAA Tournament. But Michigan has struggled against Carmody recently, falling at home two years ago and getting beaten handily in Evanston each of the last two years. For that reason, Beilein said he isn’t worried about a letdown after the big Wisconsin victory.
“You would (worry) if it was a team that did not have Zack Novak and Stu Douglass in that locker room,” Beilein said. “It’s not like we have been beating them every year. I think our kids will come in this one ready to play. I’m not worried about that.”
HORFORD UPDATE: After getting an X-ray Monday, sophomore forward Jon Horford — who hasn’t played since Dec. 10 due to a stress fracture in his foot — was cleared to begin shooting on his own this week, Beilein said.
Horford will continue to receive whirlpool treatments and other therapy, with the goal being a return to practice next week. But Beilein said that if Horford can’t practice by next week, it’s still a possibility that he’d use a redshirt and sit Horford the rest of the season.