Big Ten Tournament: Michigan vs. Northwestern Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: No. 9 Northwestern (20-11, 8-10 B1G) vs. Michigan (20-11, 10-8 B1G) 2889[1]
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
When: 12:00 p.m., March 10th, 2016
Radio: 950 AM, 102.9 FM

Michigan heads to Indianapolis in need of wins if it wants to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Wolverines need to beat a Northwestern team that has won three games in a row and has given them fits under Chris Collins, then turn around and beat Indiana — in Indianapolis — on 22 hours of rest.

Michigan has won more than one game at the Big Ten Tournament just once under John Beilein, when the 2013-14 team made it to Sunday before falling to Michigan State, but it has rarely faced this sort of pressure. There were plenty of years when Michigan needed one win to punch its ticket to the dance, others where it probably needed to win the whole thing, but not many when one upset could turn its season around one more time.

The Wildcats

Northwestern won 20 games this season for the first time in decades, but the Wildcats’ resume is incredibly hollow. Northwestern has exactly two wins over top-100 teams (per KenPom): at Virginia Tech in December and against Wisconsin in January. The Wildcats were slightly outscored in league play, putting up 1.04 points per trip and allowing 1.05, and finished the year at 8-10 in conference.

Offensively, the Wildcats are ranked 9th in the conference as they’ve struggled with their perimeter shooting. Northwestern is shooting just 33.1% from three-point range (11th) and 49.4% inside the arc (7th) for a 49.5 eFG% (9th). Playing at a very slow tempo, 63.8 possessions per game (13th), the Wildcats value the basketball and are also an above-average offensive rebounding team, grabbing 30.4% (5th) of their missed shots.

The Wildcats are ranked 8th in the conference defensively, and their strength is defensive rebounding, grabbing 72.5% of opponents’ misses (5th). Allowing a 49.8 eFG% (7th) thanks to 46.7% two-point shooting allowed (5th) and 36.4 three-point shooting (8th) is fairly average and they only force turnovers on 17% of Big Ten opponents’ possessions (7th).

Free throws have also killed the Wildcats. Northwestern only attempts 27 free throws per 100 field goal attempts (13th) and allows 36.6 free throws per 100 field goal attempts (11th). Not only are the Wildcats out-shot at the free throw line, they shoot just 63.7% (14th) at the stripe and their opponents make 74.3% of their freebies (13th).


Big man Alex Olah missed significant time due to injury this season, but he’s rounding back into form. He went for 19 points at Michigan in February and wrapped up the season with 19 points in a win over Nebraska. He’s great at playing with leverage in the post, can hit the pick-and-pop jumper and seems to just love playing against Michigan.


Tre Demps has played more minutes than anyone in the Big Ten and has made 11 of his last 21 threes since his 2-of-7 three-point shooting night at Michigan. He’s making just 45% of his twos and 33% of his threes in league play, but is one of the ultimate hot-and-cold volume shooters in the conference and he’s more than capable of taking over a game.

demps b1g

Bryant McIntosh is a great pick-and-roll player and touts the second-best assist rate in the conference. He’s just an average shooting — 40% on twos, 28% on threes — in Big Ten play and has generally struggled against Michigan, failing to reach double-digits in three games. Still, Northwestern runs the ball screen as much as any other team in the Big Ten and McIntosh will be at the helm for the majority of those possessions.


Aaron Falzon knocked in four threes on eight attempts against Michigan and has made 11 of his last 22 from distance. He’s primarily a three-point shooter, but he has the length to get his shot off in a hurry and Michigan needs to do a better job of tracking him this time around.

Sanjay Lumpkin plays significant minutes, but uses very few possessions offensively. He turns the ball over on a third of his offensive possessions, shoots 52% on twos and 29% on threes. He’s primary in the game as a defensive threat and rebounder and didn’t attempt a shot in the first meeting between these two teams.

Big man Gavin Skelly scored a sneaky eight points against Michigan, even knocking in a three. He’s made three triples in the last four games, but is just 4-of-9 on the season.  He’s a bit turnover prone, but showed great ability as a cutter to find space for easy baskets in Ann Arbor. Freshman Dererk Pardon was a breakout star early in the conference season, but has seen his minutes reduced with Olah’s return. Pardon is a presence on both backboards and a plus-finisher with a 65% two-point shooting percentage, but he’s averaging just over 10 minutes per game over the last six.


  • Hit threes: The only other time these two teams faced, Michigan opened the game with a barrage of open threes and missed them all. As a result, they fell behind and played catch up all night, only to be saved by a few critical Aubrey Dawkins triples. The Wolverines shot just 27% in that win and will need to shoot the ball more effectively to beat the Wildcats on a neutral floor.
  • Free throw battle: Michigan shot 25 free throws to Northwestern’s 9 in that win, outscoring the Wildcats by 15 points at the free throw line. Getting outscored at the free throw line is nothing new for the Wildcats.
  • Contain Olah: Alex Olah has averaged 22 points per game over his last three against Michigan and he’s been a nightmare to deal with. Michigan’s big men need to figure out a way to not only defend him one-on-one in the post, but also cover the Wildcats’ pick-and-roll action without leaving him wide open. The ball screen game is a constant chess match on both ends of the floor and, to John Beilein’s credit, Michigan did a better job against Olah in the second half of the last meeting.

Bottom Line

KenPom gives Michigan the edge 57% edge, projecting a 68-66 Wolverine victory. This is a game that feels like it could go either way as the last handful of games against the Wildcats have came down to the final moments.

  • ChathaM

    I’m well aware of the reasons, but it really bothers me that we go into this year’s BTT in the exact position as last year’s BTT; the 8-9 game. I’d hoped for, and at one time expected, so much better this season. It’s such a big picture letdown from knowing that everyone was back, plus looking like we’d be getting Jaylen Brown. Ah well. Maybe we’re one of the teams that makes a big conference tourney run and plays itself into the NCAA tourney. Why can’t it be us this year? Don’t answer that.

    I’ll stay on board until the end, either way.

  • A2MIKE

    seems like the perfect game and scenario to play zone. Northwestern is a below average shooting team from deep, it helps keep our legs rested and it neutralizes the best option NW has on offense in the pick and roll. Hope JB uses the extra prep time to throw in some defensive wrinkles. We know he will have some offensive wrinkles.

    • mikey_mac

      Agree that zone would be less taxing than man-to-man. But … the way UM plays zone is not nearly as restful as Syracuse’s 2-3. UM makes its wings scramble so much, especially in the 1-3-1. Now, NWU is a very mediocre offensive team, so UM might be able to get away with more zone, but the fact is, any extended zone looks have ended up in UM eventually getting torched down to dental records. I would tread lightly here, with this game being no gimme.

  • mikey_mac

    The fact that NWU on a neutral court is a tossup game for UM says everything you need to know.

  • snowfordays

    I see that they are among the last 4 in, as of right now. I can’t help being one of those delusional dreamers, thinking that if they can get on a roll by imagining every single shot is going through the net as they shoot it, or, at least get a hand in the face of opposing shooters, or, attack the rim and slam it home instead of an iffy layup, or stop celebrating made shots and IMMEDIATELY get back on D

    • snowfordays

      Yes, I’ll be that guy, I mean; somebody has to do it…and it is that time of year…

      • John

        I don’t think bobohle is necessarily correct. I have been that “delusional dreamer” all week who thinks that one could do it given some other results. if two of Vandy, Florida, Tulsa, and GW lose I think a win against NW would make it very close, and if three of them lose or UConn loses in bad fashion to Cinci, I think it would be more probably than not. It is my opinion that the bracketologists are slightly off-base this year on Michigan because I think they are “over-focusing” on the RPI. Some members of the selection committee do not put as much stock in RPI when they are making their selections and they reiterate it every year when there are “surprisingly selections.” I think when they look at Michigan they will see a team with 3 top 25 wins, wins on the road in and out conference, a neutral court win against a ranked Big 12 team, and a team with really no loss that could be considered bad(something that really no other bubble team can say). Optimism is in order for me today.

    • bobohle

      Joe Lunardi has Michigan in the next four OUT with Ohio State (second position). Meaning there are 5 teams on the outs ahead of us. We will need a minimum of two wins in the B1G tourney to even be considered.

  • Wayman Britt

    Every game we say this is the game UM picks up their defense and plays better. Don’t have a real good feeling the BTT brings anything different.

    • bobohle

      After every loss Coach B and interviewed players say they will watch video and learn from their mistakes. Well they keep having the same issues game after game.

  • Wayman Britt

    Every time I get frustrated with Michigan’s basketball program, I think things could be a lot worse, we could be Golden Gopher fans. Minnesota loses big time to Illinois and continues to slide.

  • Chillax

    I woke up in sweats…

  • Carmello Jones

    Ummmm in this analysis you point out “In that loss to NW”…we won that game….I am not optimistic about this at all..It wouldn’t shock me at all to see a blowout loss today or if somehow we do survive one tomorrow…Its so depressing I’ve lost interest in basketball again

    • Whoops. Good catch.

    • Tony DeMaria

      Nah, we haven’t had a “bad” loss all year. I could definitely see us losing to NW but I would be shocked if it was a blowout.

      • Carmello Jones

        I agree that all of our losses have been to pretty good teams and we have no bad losses but somehow that doesnt factor in for us with anybody..My only hope is that somehow (and Im sure we are all secretly thinking the same thing) that we have one of those out of nowhere long runs in the tournament that happens now and then..Its never happened to us so maybe this is the year we can do it…Sometimes a second life ignites a team…