Daily file photo by Colin Boyle
Last year, Northwestern hosted Michigan in early March, and the buzz was palpable. The Wildcats were pushing toward their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and had the chance to take down the Wolverines and build their resume even more. And, in almost the most dramatic fashion possible, they did so.
This year, No. 20 Michigan (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) is about as good and once again on its way to the Chicago area. NU (14-10, 5-6) hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. The Cats sit in seventh place in the Big Ten standings and are struggling, whether at home, on the road, or at a neutral site, to pick up wins in marquee games.
Coach Chris Collins, however, said he isn’t focused on what happened earlier in the season, but instead looks at the remaining games as an opportunity for NU.
“It’s that time of the year where you look at our league, it’s so jumbled up right there in the middle,” Collins said after Thursday’s win over Wisconsin. “These last seven games, a lot of us are going to be playing each other, and every game is going to be of ultimate importance.”
The Wolverines, however, are not one of those middling teams. Sitting in fourth place in the conference with key wins over UCLA and Michigan State, Michigan is currently one of four Big Ten teams projected to make the tournament in most bracket projections.
And, of course, the Wolverines recently took down NU in Ann Arbor, pulling out a 58-47 win in which the teams combined to shoot 40 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3-point range.
That performance was uncharacteristic for the hosts, who average almost 75 points per game, make 47 percent of their shots and shoot a solid 36 percent from deep.
“I was very concerned about this game,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after that matchup. “(In the first half) we didn’t make shots … but we held them, and that was the key.”
The Cats have been playing some improved defense of their own recently. After switching to a hybrid trapping zone defense on Jan. 10 against Minnesota, no team has scored more than 71 points on NU. Prior to the switch, the Cats had allowed at least that many points in three of five games.
Collins said the zone has enabled the team to get off to hot starts due to its uniqueness in the Big Ten. NU is the only team in the conference that uses a zone as its base defense.
“We were having such a hard time in our man-to-man defense of giving up a lot of points in the paint and also fouling a lot,” Collins said. “The zone is a little bit different look. Obviously, not a lot of teams play it in our league, so when you play against us it’s a little bit different. It takes a little bit of getting used to.”
Against Michigan, however, the Cats won’t have that unfamiliarity advantage. The Wolverines have already seen the zone and beaten it once, so some other adjustments may have to be made if NU hopes to change the narrative this time around.
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