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Michigan is set to play Northwestern in its opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. Previously beating the Wildcats twice in the regular season, the Wolverines have had multiple opportunities to scout their upcoming opponent. 

The Wildcats had the upper hand last season, beating Michigan twice in the Big Ten regular season. Yet, the Wolverines defeated them in their second game of the Big Ten Tournament. Anything can happen come tournament time and Michigan showed that last season. The Wolverines have performed against Northwestern but nothing is guaranteed. 

Northwestern is led by junior guard Veronica Burton. Off of Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year accolades, Burton’s a threat both offensively and defensively. Her ability to steal the ball and score in transition is a vital part of the Wildcats’ offense. Averaging 16.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.2 steals, Burton changes games.

She’s assisted by senior guard Lindsey Pulliam. Averaging 16 points a game, Pulliam’s mid-range ability is crucial to the Wildcats. Her confidence to shoot anywhere within the field could create problems for Michigan, defensively. 

“They are a great team, very competitive and have some great players on their team,” junior forward Naz Hillmon said. “We’re just being focused and understanding that this isn’t going to be a walk in the park no matter who we’re playing in the Big Ten Tournament.”

Northwestern’s defense paid a lot of attention to Hillmon in their first matchup. This created opportunities for Michigan’s outside shooters, which the Wolverines took advantage of, going 8-for-13 from the 3-point line. Hillmon still ended the night with 26 points and 12 rebounds. 

Scoring from behind the arc has been a struggle for Michigan ever since its 14-day pause six weeks ago, but in their final regular-season game against Northwestern, the Wolverines found their groove. Junior guard Amy Dilk and senior guard Hailey Brown went 3-for-4 and 2-for-5, respectively. Knocking down those open shots could be crucial come Thursday. 

“Our shooting was a little bit better (against Northwestern) than it had been and we made seven threes on the day,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We’re starting to get our confidence back and we’re excited for the opportunity just to play.”

Northwestern’s zone defense could create the most problems for the Wolverines. Michigan is a passing team, and it showed in their last matchup against the Wildcats, earning 17 assists as a team. The Wolverines broke through last time but the zone style of defense makes it harder to do so. Northwestern put Michigan in foul trouble in the January matchup and the Wolverines had to play the final five minutes without Dilk.

Without Dilk, or any of the other starters, Michigan loses its rhythm. Keeping everyone on the court is crucial for Thursday. 

“Anytime you play a team three times, it becomes difficult because you know their tendencies inside and out,” Barnes Arico said. “But I like our matchup against them, and I like our matchup against their buzz defense which is really disruptive.”

For the first time in 368 days, Michigan will play a game with fans — other than family members. In their biggest game of the season, the Wolverines will look to continue their streak against Northwestern and make a run at a Big Ten Tournament title.