The Daily Northwestern

Men’s Basketball: Surging Northwestern heads to Michigan for pivotal test

The squad gathers during a stoppage in play. The Wildcats look to pick up a big conference victory Monday at Michigan.

The squad gathers during a stoppage in play. The Wildcats look to pick up a big conference victory Monday at Michigan.

Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Daily file photo by Brian Meng

The squad gathers during a stoppage in play. The Wildcats look to pick up a big conference victory Monday at Michigan.

Ben Pope, Managing Editor

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Men’s Basketball

Northwestern’s team received a special advance viewing of “First Dance,” Big Ten Network’s documentary on last season’s historic NCAA Tournament run, prior to its game against Penn State on Jan. 20.

Since then, the Wildcats (13-9, 4-5 Big Ten) have been undefeated, rattling off consecutive come-from-behind wins over the Nittany Lions and then Minnesota to climb back in the thick of the conference standings. And coach Chris Collins credits, among other things, that flashback to last year’s triumph for restoring NU’s motivation.

“I thought it really helped our guys, just to see themselves with that kind of passion and spirit and hunger,” Collins said Friday. “It jump-started us a little bit.”

Beating Penn State and Minnesota is one thing, though. Beating Michigan on the road, which the Cats will be tasked with on Monday night in Ann Arbor, would be a far superior accomplishment.

The No. 25 Wolverines (17-6, 6-4) — the defending Big Ten Tournament champions — have lost only once at the Crisler Center in 12 games to date. That was a 1-point defeat to then-No. 5 Purdue earlier this month, and they followed up that performance by topping then-No. 4 Michigan State just four days later.

Michigan boasts two of the top 17 scorers in the conference in guard Charles Matthews and forward Mo Wagner, while its third-leading scorer, guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, just erupted for a career-high 26 points in the Wolverines’ narrow and thrilling loss at Purdue on Thursday.

But if NU learned anything from “First Dance,” it should be the importance of upsetting Michigan — although presumably without needing another full-court buzzer beater as it did last year on Nathan Taphorn’s heave to Dererk Pardon. And the cruciality of each remaining game doesn’t seem lost on this Cats team.

“We just need to continue to play the way we’re playing right now,” senior guard Bryant McIntosh said. “We’ve just got to continue to play with pace, with pop, and play together.”

NU’s recent implementation of a zone defense with a light press aspect has sparked a noticeable defensive turnaround, helping the Cats win the turnover battle in three straight games and most recently hold the Golden Gophers to 42.4 percent shooting in Tuesday’s win.

Collins said the schemes have given NU “new life,” alleviating the recurring foul problems that were plaguing the team and allowing Collins to play smaller lineups at times, such as a three-guard lineup featuring McIntosh and fellow senior Scottie Lindsey in addition to breakout freshman Anthony Gaines.

“Whether it’s a great defense or not a great defense, defense is so much predicated on whether the guys believe in what you’re trying to do, (and they do),” Collins said.

The zone will nevertheless be tested against a Michigan team with the best average turnover differential and sixth-best shooting percentage in the Big Ten, and Collins acknowledged the need to make continual adjustments now that opponents have had time to scout for holes in it.

There’s a danger in changing too much, however, now that the Cats are playing arguably their best basketball of an otherwise disappointing season.

“There’s no room for more slip-ups,” Collins said. “We know there’s a lot of ball left, we know all the goals we had are still attainable. We’ve got to play really well, we’ve got to string wins together, but I’m proud of the group for fighting out some of the things we were going through early in the season.”

Twitter: @benpope111