Northwestern and Michigan are about to play a game critical for both teams' postseason chances. The Wildcats and Wolverines are both 4-7 in conference with a chance to improve on that mark greatly during the rest of conference play. Whichever team takes the game at Crisler Arena will be in a much better place. Thus I brought in Dylan Burkhardt of Michigan blog UMHoops to talk about the game.
CCB - The last time these two teams played Darius Morris only played 24 minutes due to foul trouble, but still managed to score 16 points. What have you seen from the sophomore point guard this season?
UMH - Morris is the catalyst for Michigan's offense. He's accounted for 53% of Michigan's made baskets on the season (via assists or made field goals) and when he's playing well everything falls into place. Simply put, he's improved more than anyone could have imagined. He's scored the ball thanks to efficient scoring inside the arc, where he shoots 57%, and distributes the ball to Michigan's shooters effectively (6.8 ast/game).
I'm actually working on a larger post about this, but for the most part we've been reduced to complaining about specific parts of his game -- things like "he dribbles too much" or "he can't go left" -- rather than focusing on the exceptional production that he's providing. Morris is probably the primary reason why Michigan, picked to finish last in the Big Ten by most, has overachieved this far.
CCB - Speaking of that last match up, after it the Wolverines were 1-5 in conference and Northwestern was 3-4. Now both teams are 4-7 in the conference. What's been the key for Michigan during the recent 3-2 run?
UMH - The hot shooting has certainly helped. Michigan shot 48.5% on 3's in its last three Big Ten wins combined. The defense has been a little better but is still thoroughly overwhelming. I think the biggest thing has just been composure. (I know, a weak answer for a tempo free blogger.)
After losing numerous close games early on this year, Michigan finally appears to understand how to play through tough situations. The Wolverines fell behind by 10 points in the first and second half at Penn State but were leading at the end of both. Michigan was down early in East Lansing, but managed to battle back, take the lead, and then hold off Michigan State for 30 minutes. Even Iowa jumped out to a small lead in Ann Arbor, but Michigan kept its focus and blew the game open in the second half.
This newfound confidence undoubtedly stems from the win at Michigan State -- the first Michigan win at the Breslin Center since 1997.
CCB - Tim Hardaway seems to be a typical freshman season with ups and downs. Grade his performance this season for the Wolverines.
UMH - He's definitely had some ups and downs but he's done a good job for Michigan this year. After sitting on the bench with foul trouble for significant portions of the Penn State game, he responded and scored all 13 of his points in the final eight minutes as Michigan rallied from a double digit deficit. Hardaway was more aggressive and assertive attacking the basket and also buried a couple triples. He's had enough impressive moments this season that most Michigan fans are extremely excited about his potential.
CCB - Who is someone besides Morris and Hardaway that Northwestern should look out for on Wednesday night?
UMH - Both the good and bad thing about this team is that it can really be anyone that steps up. Morris, Hardaway, [Zack] Novak, [Stu] Douglass, [Jordan] Morgan, and [Evan] Smotrycz have all led Michigan in scoring at least once this season. Douglass, Novak, and Smotrycz all do the majority of their damage with the three point shot. On the other hand, Morgan won't create much offense for himself, but Morris does a great job finding him off the pick and roll.
If Michigan wins the game, I suspect you will see at least four of these guys in double figures. If just two of them can find their offense, we probably have a road win for Northwestern. I'll go with Novak having a big game. The junior has been quiet lately but has struggled with long and athletic defenders ([Ohio State's William] Buford, [David] Lighty, and [Penn State's] David Jackson), he should find a few more good looks versus Northwestern.
CCB - In my NIT projections on Friday I had Michigan just in the field. Is that the ceiling of this team? Do you think they can still get an NCAA Tournament bid?
UMH - I'm no bracketologist, but the odds are very low in my opinion. It feels like Michigan would need at least a 5-2 finish to the regular season. There are some games that pundits probably consider winnable, but that still feels like a tall order. I think this team is still in good position to make the NIT with a couple more wins and that would be more than most Michigan (or Big Ten) fans expected. To make any post season the next two games, at home versus Northwestern and Indiana, are absolutely critical.
A big thank you to Dylan. Check out UMHoops for more about the Wolverines. He also does some tempo-free stuff around the entire conference, like his weekly Big Ten Roundup.