By: Jesse Kirsch
Nine-seed Northwestern looks for revenge against number eight Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament’s second round on Thursday morning.
The two teams will play for the second time this year after a 72-63 Michigan win in Ann Arbor back in late February. Fresh off their 20th win of the season, the Wildcats may have the momentum to get an edge on a Michigan team they led for most of the first half in that February meeting.
Both teams ended the year with 20-11 records. Jim Beilein’s squad notched a 10-8 conference tally, while Chris Collin’s team finished at 8-10 in the Big Ten. Thanks to stronger non-conference scheduling and three wins vs. the RPI top 50, the Wolverines enter the conference tournament on the NCAA Tourney bubble, while Northwestern needs some wins in Indianapolis to keep their NIT dreams alive.
If the ‘Cats are going to have a chance, the usual producers are going to have to find a spark. Not just on offense—Tre Demps’ three-pointer hot streaks won’t be good enough. Northwestern needs to lock down the lane, which didn’t happen in the teams’ February 24 match up. On their home court at the Crisler Center, the Wolverines scored 32 points in the paint as opposed to Northwestern’s 18, making key second-half adjustments after the Wildcats surprised Michigan and came out in man-to-man defense instead of their traditional “amoeba” zone.
Alex Olah always seems to play well against Michigan. He had 19 points in these two teams’ last match up after averaging 23.5 points per game against the Wolverines last season. If Olah can demand a double-team down low, this will open up the perimeter, allowing Tre Demps and Aaron Falzon—both shooting over 30 percent from long range—to light up the Michigan defense.
The Wildcats will also have to take care of the ball against the Wolverines. Michigan has been much more aggressive defensively than Northwestern, and the Wildcats need to be prepared in case the athletic Wolverines come out in the full-court press that has plagued Northwestern all season long.
This one could come down to the mysterious work of an “X Factor.” For this game, I’d bet on Alex Olah. He’s constantly strived for improvement, this is his last chance for college hoops glory, and he will have a height advantage on almost every play against the shorter Michigan big men. If Olah gets hot, the Wildcats could make a run. If not, Michigan will advance to the quarterfinals to face top-seeded Indiana.