Game 28: Michigan at Northwestern Recap

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan 67, Northwestern 55 16
Photo: Dustin Johnston

There are more than enough college basketball teams that can rack up wins when they play their best. Great college teams figure out ways to win games when they play poorly and that’s exactly what Michigan did last night in Evanston. The Wolverines shot themselves in the foot with early foul trouble, missed free throws and layups and attempted a seemingly endless number of three pointers. Somehow, when all was said and done Michigan had escaped with a victory.

Northwestern appeared to have finally seized the game with a four point lead and under three minutes to play as Michigan’s comedy of errors appeared to have finally proven too much to overcome. But there was just enough time for a last ditch Wolverine effort. Backs against the wall yet again, Michigan responded. The Wolverines would hit five of their final eight three point attempts to send the game into overtime and win comfortably in the extra period.

John Beilein mentioned in his post game that Northwestern was just a couple of bounces away from being a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament – notably in both overtime games against Michigan. He meant it as a compliment. In actuality those couple bounces and extra possessions are the reason why Michigan is 11-4 and Northwestern is 6-9. Whether it’s senior leadership, mental fortitude or moxie, this Michigan team has thrived in late game situations. Six of Michigan’s 11 Big Ten wins have come in overtime or been decided by five points or less.

The four factors chart doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact it’s hard to explain how the numbers add up. There aren’t many teams that get out-rebounded by Northwestern in Evanston and end up celebrating in the locker room after the game. The only way to look at the game is by breaking it into segments.

Northwestern scored three points on its first six possessions of the game – it also took just six possessions for Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz to accumulate two fouls each. With Blake McLimans and Colton Christian manning the five position, the Wildcats would rattle off 28 points in the next 25 possessions.

1st Half
1st Half
2nd Half OT Game
Poss. 6 19 24 10 59
NW PPP 0.50 1.47 0.75 0.60 0.93
U-M PPP 1.67 0.74 1.04 1.80 1.14
Margin 1.17 -0.73 0.29 1.20 0.20
NW OR% 0.0% 80.0% 18.2% 30.0% 38.2%
UM OR% 50.0% 23.1% 42.1% 25.0% 35.0%

Michigan’s defensive effort for the 31 minutes that McLimans and Christian weren’t on the floor was phenomenal. Michigan outscored Northwestern 53-27 in the 40 possessions that Morgan or Smotrycz were on the floor, that’s 1.3 points scored per trip to just .68 allowed. The Wolverine defense looked like a well oiled machine as it switched every screen and held Northwestern to just 3-of-16 three point shooting. With Morgan or Smotrycz in the game, Michigan was more than adequate on the defensive glass as well. Despite the rollercoaster first half defensive performance, Michigan was the first team to hold the Wildcats to under a point per possession for an entire game in the last month.

Those other 14 minutes happened, and they almost cost Michigan the game. Morgan and Smotrycz were both called for just one additional foul in the second half and overtime and neither were limited due to fouls. Of course their effective play in the second half without worrying about fouls can also be an endorsement of the strategy. Both players pick up cheap fouls and I tend to be ok with the two-and-sit strategy but with three minutes remaining in the first half, down five with McLimans understandably gassed, you simply have to go back to Jordan Morgan or Evan Smotrycz. Smotrycz might be the smarter move, to protect your actual starter, but Colton Christian at the five position is just not the answer in that scenario.

The Michigan offense was rescued by hitting five of its last eight three point shots. The number of three point attempts 18 twos to 38 threes was as appalling as the fact that the Wolverines only converted 39% of their two point looks against Northwestern’s porous interior defense. The 1-3-1 zone certainly slowed Michigan’s offense, daring the Wolverines too shoot threes, but it wasn’t successful in forcing turnovers. Firing up 68% of your shots from three point becomes a more viable strategy if you can crash the offensive glass (Michigan did in the second half) and eliminate turnovers (12.1% turnover rate). Both paid off as Michigan attempted five more shots and four more free throws for the game.

The Wolverines are a legitimate Big Ten title contender. Michigan has to play Purdue on Saturday before traveling to Illinois and Penn State. Two of the games are on the road but the Wolverines are 3-0 against that group this season. In mid-January there were some questions about where this team was heading but right now the Wolverines have a realistic shot to finish 14-4 in Big Ten play.

Michigan 67, Northwestern 55 26Michigan 67, Northwestern 55 25Michigan 67, Northwestern 55 27
Photos: Dustin Johnston

Player Bullets:

  • Trey Burke: I’m not sure that Michigan needs Burke shooting 12 threes (he made four) but Michigan does need Burke making plays. He did both. Burke finished with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two turnovers. He wasn’t flawless but he hit big shots and went the distance playing 45 minutes.
  • Stu Douglass: Douglass played a complete game and, we’ve been saying this a lot lately, it was one of the best of his career. 12 points on 4-of-9 (4-7 3pt) shooting with five assists, one steal and one turnover. Douglass hit huge threes, including the dagger, but also was patient with the basketball and did a great job working the ball against the 1-3-1 zone. He took some deep threes and but he was also instrumental defensively, slowing Crawford, Shurna, whoever he was matched-up with. He’s not Zack Novak style of leader but his calming leadership is a perfect complement to Novak’s emotion and has a positive effective in the backcourt on both ends of the floor.
  • Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway had a great start to the game: he took a charge, had an assist on Michigan’s first basket, grabbed a strong rebound and picked up a foul attacking the basket. Then his problems at the free throw line seemed to get the best of him and he made just 4-of-10 freebies. His shooting stroke was a bit inconsistent but the fact that he got to the line 10 times reinforces that he was aggressive offensively and he hit the huge three late to tie the game.
  • Jordan Morgan: The fouls were maddening and the second one was a very cheap one to giveaway. However, Morgan really battled on the glass while corralling seven rebounds although he struggled to finish around the hoop.
  • Evan Smotrycz: Smotrycz made a positive impact in his 15 minutes without even attempting a three. He bobbled a catch early and missed a layup but he also had a strong take in the second half and seemed to be assertive against the 1-3-1 zone. He grabbed five rebounds and blocked a shot as well.
  • Zack Novak: Novak did not play well for the first 40 minutes of this game. He had a pair of frustrating turnovers, he missed shots and got beat man-to-man several times by Reggie Hearn. Without overtime, Novak would have had the most disappointing performance on the U-M roster. Then he won the game in overtime. An offensive rebound that somehow caromed back to him turned into an assist before he knocked down a three on the ensuing possession – the only shot he made in 31 minutes suddenly stretched the lead to six.
  • Matt Vogrich: It sounds crazy to say that the junior guard who averages 2.5 points per game could be the key to a Michigan tournament run but when Vogrich can come off the bench and hit shots it changes the dynamic of the Michigan offense. Michigan is 7-0 when Vogrich hits a three and he’s now made 8 of his last 12 three point attempts after hitting just seven of his first 33 this season.
  • Blake McLimans & Colton Christian: Both players struggled but they played 14 minutes in the first half and Michigan was down only seven. The Wolverines had two days to prep for Northwestern and the amount of time that was spent prepping Blake or Colton for guarding the Wildcats was probably little to none.
  • RB

    I think Brian @mgoblog said it best regarding the early foul situation.  ”
    Worst case scenario if you leave Morgan in? You have to play McLimans 15 minutes. Which you just did.”

    • Ken

      yea but it’s in the first half not the second half.

      • statest09

        Points are worth the same amount no matter when you get them.

        • Kenny

          this is nonsense, you have to have your best players in during crunch time.The intensity of the game is not uniform for the 40 minutes.  I like mgoblog, but that same Brain was calling Beilein’s head 13 month ago. In football, it is OK for Gardner to run a couple plays during the game, but when the game in on the line in the fourth quarter, it is Denard that is always under the center.  

          • GCS

            Trey Burke was able to play during crunch time of the Iowa game. Too bad it was already hopeless at that point because they fell so far behind as Burke was sitting with two fouls in the first half.

          • jemblue

            I agree that sitting your point guard with two personals is more questionable than sitting a big man.  That said, against Iowa, it was a 10-point game at halftime – not insurmountable.  With Burke on the floor in the second half, Iowa expanded its lead further and won by 16. 

          • serious

             Brian never called for Belein’s head. I have read MGoBlog daily for a few years now and I do not recall this. I’d really like to see some evidence of this.

          • jemblue

            I don’t know if he’s outright called for his head, but he’s regularly grumbled that Beilein has a “low ceiling” – which isn’t a ringing endorsement. He’s finally started to come around on Beilein lately.

          • serious

            Yes, I remember this well. He is clearly wrong about the ‘low ceiling’ – which, I believe, was in regards to Beilein’s inability to get highly-touted recruits (Ha!). However, ‘low ceiling’ ≠ calling for Beilein’s head.

        • jemblue

          Points may be worth the same, but second-half minutes are more important than first-minutes, for the simple fact that you’re getting closer to the end. Each possession’s value increases as time runs out. In the first half, you still have a ton of possessions left, so a bad 3-4 minute stretch here and there isn’t so bad. In the second half, a bad 3-4 stretch can be the deciding factor.

    • Travis

      Disagree that is the worst case.   If you leave Smot in and he gets foul #3 he becomes tenative and less useful.  If you leave Morgan in and he gets #3 then you are really pushing it in the second half.  He won’t become tenative but when he gets cheap foul #4 (like that crazy ass double foul) you have to sit him in crunch time.   The refs were calling every brush in the first half, we were playing horribly, and were still keeping it close.   I think getting to the locker room, making adjustments (and chewing some ass) and coming out aggressive was a great move.   If we make free throws early and don’t miss 3-4 layups that ends up a 10-15 point game in regulation. 

    • UM Hoops Fan

      Brian also said something like Trey Burke would dribble out of Arkansas’s press — he just doesn’t understand the basics of basketball (i.e., that’s not how you break a press) — aside from the fact he’s been wrong about every major football decision, no?  I’ll stick with JB over Brian when it comes to basketball decisions.

  • ForeverBlue

    I don’t have a problem sitting Morgan and Smotrycz before the half.  The team was out of synch and it made sense to get to the locker room, make adjustments and have your regular rotation ready to go hard. 

    As for Stu not being Zach. . .not sure why that needs to be said.  Stu has put together a heck of a season.  I’m not sure where this team would be without his defense, all with avoiding foul trouble and taking himself out of the game for long stretches.

    • 1grumpy_old_man

      I think he was just highlighting that leadership styles can be different and still effective, as well as the complimentary nature of those two particular leaders.

  • Quaint06

    This team has amazed me. They’re going to make this season a hard act to follow.

  • serious

    I would rather play Christian over McLimans at the 5 versus a small team such as Northwestern. Or, hell, against any team. I don’t care how much height Christian is giving up – McLimans can’t rebound. McLimans has now failed to record a rebound in his last 38 minutes of playing time, which is atrocious. Christian is undersized but he plays with an energy that either McLimans does not possess or has no idea how to unleash.

    All in all, though, great win for the good guys. You have to pull games like this out if you want to win a Big Ten Championship.

    • snowfox

      I agree with you 100%. But, feel like it depends on the situation. I felt that we needed better rebounding and defense- not three point attempts from Blake.

  • MarcO

    I like what we saw from this team yesterday.  I believe the NCAA’s are ref’d a lot more like last night than what we normally see in the B1G.  Last nights game was a good eye-opener for this team. 

    I also am here to eat crow, I predicted a loss.  Love being wrong. 

  • sane1

    Didn’t need PPP stats to know that Blake was incredibly ineffective in every facet of the game. Re: benching JMo and Smotrycz after 2 fouls, we held NW to 18 second half points because we could be aggressive on D. A third foul on JMo and Smotrycz would have hurt the second half D. And the refs were calling it so close in the first half.

  • Steve Wolters

    Stu was masterful with the 1-3-1 last night. He had some great ball-fakes that really allowed our shooters to get a little extra space. Vogrich is finally getting some decent run, allowing him to get into the flow of the game.

    What more can I say about this team? That was an extremely tough environment as Northwestern was fighting for a tournament birth. 

  • Andy MooN

    I don’t think the dynamics of sitting both of them made sense whatsosever. Evan and Jordan were not going to be on the floor at the same time against a team like NW and they rarely are against anyone. So essentially you still had 5 fouls to give in those 20 min. and still have one of them on the floor.
     I thought it would have made sense to let Blake play 5-10 and then put Even back in and risk him picking up his third. Think about it you still would have had Evan having to fouls to give and then Jordan with 3 while they are splitting 20 min. I love JB, but sometimes the sitting someone with 2 fouls for the rest of the half thing is maddening. I feel the situation should dictate whether or not to bench the player rather then it being a hard rule.

    • Kenny

      disagree.  There is no need to risk the 3rd foul on either. Having both available gives more options down the stretch. What if Morgon get two quick fouls again at the beginning of the second half?

      On the other hand, I am sure that beilein would’ve put one of them back if the situation was more out of control. 

      • Andy MooN

        Morgan wouldn’t get two quick fouls because he would have been pulled after one. I’m sorry in this case I thought it was a really bad decision and nearly cost us the game. 
        All I was asking was for Evan to play a couple more minutes in order to give Blake a break. I hardly even would call one of your two big men picking up a third foul a risk. 

  • Mattski

    By next season the two-foul issue may not loom as large; in the meantime, it’s fun to debate. Last night I would have been tempted to apply the rule to Morgan but let Smot play. I always feel more confident with Morgan in the game down the stretch, but also wonder whether Smot is in long enough sometimes to get a rhythm established. 

    If McLimans could sink a couple of threes it would alter the dynamic. 

    In truth, the odds could catch up with Beilein, but in the meantime his strategy has worked out. And when Morgan returns he does it with energy. That game looked raggedy throughout, but in retrospect I was more appreciative of M’s play after reading and considering this a.m. Thanks for the analysis.

    • Giebz

      It didn’t work when Burke sat most of the first half against Iowa.  A blanket rule being applied to a PG that almost never fouls seems foolish.  That being said JB is near god like in every other coaching category, so I will live with this one frustrating rule.  

      • Mattski

        Beilein cannot be characterized as inflexible, and we’ll never know whether he is fully categorical in his two-foul stance until he doesn’t ever break it (slightly convoluted there, but). But yeah, we lost to Iowa. And I remember being frustrated with Burke out, especially since he has not been terribly foul-prone.

    • Andy MooN

      The strategy really hurt us against Iowa at their place when Burke sat 15 min. in the first half. 

      • Andy MooN

        And against UVA when Hardaway sat 10+ in the first half. So in two of our losses when had a starter on the bench for more than 10 min. on a team that only goes 7 deep. I think JB is a top 10 coach in the country, I just think this strategy hurts at times. I probably would have sat Hardaway in that game as well considering the circumstance, but I feel the decision should take circumstance into account rather than being a rule. 
        I do believe Novak got away with it once this year, but I can’t remember against who.

  • UM Hoops Fan

    Dylan, did we get “outshot”?  Our eFG% is higher, right?  Also, I wouldn’t say we played “poorly.”  We played good defense — kept them out of 3 pt shots, their bread and butter, and limited them at home to well-below their season ppp average.  At most we played one poor stretch.  Overall, we had a good offensive game, although we could’ve attacked the back of the zone a bit better.

    Other than those complaints (it’s like this thread, where >50% are whining about JB), great write-up and insights, as per usual.

    • Your right… I need to stop writing these at 3am. We did play good defense and I think I pointed that out, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we played well. Just figured out a way to win.

      • UM Hoops Fan

        I always appreciate getting those write-ups ASAP, so keep up the good work and I’ll stop nit-picking. 

        • Not sure you can call it nit-picking when I was wrong ;-)

  • ChathaM

    We all knew that McLimans’ prescence was killing us in that extended first half stretch. But, the chart above really puts it into perspective. Wow. Morgan and Smotrycz have to be 100% focussed on defending with their feet first, and their hands second, in future games. That inability to defend in a disciplined way out of the gate almost cost a game. Added frontcourt depth will hopefully make that less of a concern in future years, but for now; that’s exactly part of the nightmare scenario that could knock UM out of the tournament early.

    I agree with those who felt that the game was officiated differently in the first and second halves. As an official, I’m rarely critical of officials, but this is an exception. There were some very touchy fouls called early in the game. Later in the game, players were being thrown to the floor, with absolutely nothing being called. The one glaring play is the Curletti headlock on Morgan while Burke’s 3 was in the air. The baseline official right in front of the play had nothing else to watch, and I don’t think he called a thing (as he didn’t raise his arm). Did the double foul (after which Morgan’s “what did I do?” reaction was justified, IMO) result only from the monitor consultation? I don’t get that at all.

    We should all make it a point to appreciate the willingness of this team to step in and take a charge. Not very many teams buy into the skill as much as this team does. Those charges can be game-changing plays. The one that jumps to mind as a potential game-changer last night was the charge that Novak (I think) took after we failed to box out the shooter on a missed free throw. The shooter rebounded and drove, but the defender was waiting and, bam; horrible box out mistake erased. 

    Beilein was fine with all of the 3 point attempts, mentioning that the 1-3-1 zone that NW played was not vulnerable inside. I agree, but only to a point. I think that zone can be attacked from wing to baseline to post/middle. More to the point, though, is that UM attempted too many 3’s early in the shot clock, when a better look could have resulted from exercising more patience.

    I really hope that NW can get to the tourney. Shurna is a great guy.

    • Zapp Brannigan

      When the ref came over to the announcers he said the double foul was called on the floor.  Not sure I buy it though.

      • rlcBlue

        Well, apparently Morgan fouled the basket support, so I guess I can believe the ref called a foul on the floor as well.

        • ChathaM

          Nicely done.

  • Reggie_noble

    If um win out and share the regular season title and win the tournament.its possible they can get a#1

    • Michigan4

      With 7 losses probably not a 1 seed, but if they win out I do think they can be a 2 seed.

      • Reggie_noble

        Other teams will lose.with another msu and ohio w.we look good.27 wins.we will be in the top ten on monday.its looking good.

        • Michigan4

          I agree that I think the champion of the Big Ten should be a 1 seed. But with Kentucky and Syracuse basically having two of the 1 seeds wrapped up, and Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Missouri, and to a lesser extent MSU, all having better overall records and resume’s than Michigan, its next to impossible.  IMHO, it would take two losses from each of the teams listed (3 for Kentucky & Syracuse) to put UM in the 1 seed talk.

    • sshow

      I’ve been thinking the same thing. I’d say we’d be a #1 seed for sure if we were to win a share of the B1G and win the conference tourney. C’mon it’s the best conference in the country. You have to give at least one team from the B1G a number 1 seed.

  • MGoTweeter

    re: two foul situation.  I think the biggest thing about it that no one really talks about much (Dylan mentioned it briefly in the recap) and is very difficult to categorize, is the effect that fouls have on said players defense.  

    If Morgan or Smotrycz play and pick up a third, which at the time seemed pretty likely given the way the game was being officiated in the first half, then how well do they play on defense in the second half?  There is no way to know, but clearly you have to be concerned about how physical a guy is going to be if he is worried about picking up more fouls.  I believe the strategy is not so much about making sure you have those guys for the end of the game, as it is about making sure that you maximize the effectiveness of your defense over the course of the entire game.  

    I thought last night the strategy was right up until the last four minutes of the half when it became clear that McLimans had very little energy left to give.  At that point I would have put one of the two back in the game and rolled the dice.  

    • Jengoblue

      This is what I was thinking too. Well said. 

    • Mstein23

      Bingo.  Players are not effective defensively when they’re playing not to foul, which then throws off the overall effectiveness of the entire team defense.  

  • gpsimms

    Disclaimer:  I am NOT saying that Colton Christian is the answer at 5. 

    But man, I do not get the negativity that is always directed at this kid.  He was in for THREE defensive possessions.  I didn’t watch the first half, so I really can’t contribute to the discussions, and if someone who watched the game can tell em that Colton ruined everything in his 3 defensive possessions I will listen.

    However, it seems a little ridiculous to clump his three possessions in with Blake’s 16.

    • MGoTweeter

      I would not say that he ruined everything when he was in, but he certainly did not help much.  On one possession NW got an offensive rebound, but it was really Burke’s fault for not boxing out.  However, someone with more range as a rebounder might have gotten to the board.  Did not end up hurting as Michigan got a steal right after that.  Curletti hit a jumper on the next possession and I think Christian was at least partially to blame as he was too locked in to a wing player in the 2-3 and most likely should have been one of the guys to rotate to Curletti.  On the other possession Shurna scored off a post up on Burke and Christian definitely should have helped and doubled to prevent that.  

      So on those three possessions, I would say one he did just fine, one he was at least partially responsible for a basket, and the third he definitely messed up.  He was not terrible out there and there were probably some other things during those plays that he did right (I seem to remember him having a good close out on Shurna on one play), but he is a step down from the other guys when he has to play the 5.  

      • gpsimms

         thanks for the recap.  i was curious.  and yes, i do get/agree that he’s out of his element at the 5.

    • Manny

      I watched it and he did not ruin ANYTHING! Your point is dead on!

  • Scott1222

    Struggled a bit early, had the officials hinder our play but fought and we found a way to win..that’s what great teams do….as always, great job Dylan…

  • GoBlue

    Not sure if this has been linked to yet or not but… for UM fans’ viewing pleasure…. Luke Winn of SI uses his “Magic Eightball” predictor to put Michigan as one of the eight possible teams to go all the way….

    …accuracy is debatable but still have to appreciate seeing our name in that lot.

  • beingklauskinski

    stu was just too nice breaking the 1-3-1 last night

  • Manny

    Did any of you play division 1 college basketball or do you just analyze it for a living?? And thanks for pointing out the OBVIOUS, that we are better with our top 2 5’s then our 8th and 9th guys off the bench. Duh!!! They both did their jobs and weathered the storm in a WIN!! Sure pick apart their individual play with “they should have rebounded better” or “they were ineffective in all facets of the game” blah blah blah, all facets they don’t even hardly touch the ball in the largest facet of the game and I for one know that is tough to get into a flow from. You all go out there and play yourselves, I did, you’ll see, and those 14 minutes were as much a shock to them, the team, the coaches and even the water boys as it was a shock to us the fans! But that happens and they got through it as they should have, and then all cylinders were clicking for a 2nd half run. The only good point you make is that the amount of preparation for McLimans and Christian was 0. Don’t expect them to do more than they did, they competed, lost individually but ended up winning collectively! That is college basketball at it’s finest! Go Blue!