(Diarist Note: This is the beginning portion of a longer post at the JCB. I figured I would post the Michigan section here. Check out the rest of the post for a spin around the Big 10, in addition to even more Michigan talk. We do something silly, like compare Michigan and Louisville's resumes. It's closer than you think. And: Pick$$!!)
One of the Games Of The Year in the Big 10 takes place tonight. But its not the game you think.
Oh, sure, tonight's Michigan State at Wisconsin game feels like a heavyweight fight. But, for our purposes here of tracking the state of the Bubble, there arent going to be many more games as important in the conference as the game in Evanston tonight between Michigan and Northwestern.
How in the world is a Northwestern home game against an 11-10 team one of the season's critical juncture points? It's the confluence of the Wildcats urgency to earn their historic tournament bid, a soft bubble, a cratering Big 10 Bubble and the fact that Michigan represents one of their tougher challenges the rest of the way. At 3-6 in the Big 10, the Cats need to win twice as many games as they lose the rest of the way to probably be under legit consideration. That might seem like a tall order. But KenPom actually projects just such a finish, with Northwestern getting to the clubhouse at 9-9 in league play, 21-10 overall. Hard to see them left out of the field with those numbers. By giving the Wildcats a 62-percent chance at winning tonight, KenPom makes Michigan their fourth toughest hurdle over their final ten overall games.
This a major swing game for them. They will be favored by Vegas in a lot of those games down the stretch as well, so a big run to get their league record resume worthy is not out of the question. That run becomes harder, if not impossible, without a win tonight. Some feel the Cats need to go 4-0 in their next four to get back into contention. If Northwestern wins, they stop a two game slide, can start gobbling up wins en route to a 20-win campaign and work their way up the Bubble ladder. They have quite a ways to go. With 48 precincts reporting to the Bracket Matrix, and all but a small handful having updated since the weekend, only 5 mock bracketologists put Northwestern in their fields. That not only puts them out of the Final 8 cut from the Matrix but with less votes than Arizona and UTEP. If they lose tonight, you can do the math. They wont be anywhere close to anyone's bracket. They only have one game left--at Wisconsin--that they could win and radically change a lot of people's mind on just what postseason bracket Northwestern deserves. Every game from here on out is a must win for Northwestern's hopes, but there are a few they could afford to lose. This is not one of them. This would be a bad loss.
But not many bad loss candidates come in with the Experts in the Desert calling it a coin flip. Despite the disparate records, placement on the bubble and the home court edge, oddsmakers have made Northwestern just a 2-point favorite tonight. That's a testament to the fact that plenty of folks within in the betting public give Michigan as much of a chance at winning this game than the hometown Cats.
Where does the perception come from? One word: Defense. Michigan has some. Northwestern doesnt. The Wolverines have evolved into one of the best stop units out there. They're 35th in the nation in points allowed and 10th in three-point percentage defense. They also remain one of the top teams in the country at turnover margin. For all the Wolverines' flaws, they do a few things well, notably pushing you into taking treys from beyond your comfort zone and forcing sloppy play. On a points per possession allowed standpoint, Michigan is right up in league play with conference stalwarts MSU and Wisconsin. Their points per possession margin from offense to defense also puts them in the top half of the conference. If only their win/loss record did the same, then maybe Michigan would have some stack on the table tonight as well. As for Northwestern, they couldnt guard a crosswalk. The Wildcats have the most porous defense in the league. They might not allow a ton of points, per se, but they are the worst in the league at points allowed per possession. Michigan would be wise to push up the tempo at times. I think their defense can handle the extra possessions. I dont think Northwestern's can. If Michigan can limit its own turnovers against a 1-3-1 zone defense that they are obviously more than familiar with, then they will control this contest.
The teams find themselves in opposite positions from a year ago. in 2009, Michigan snapped a NCAA drought, but would not have done so had they not been the only team in the Big 10 to sweep Northwestern last season. A year later, its Northwestern that needs the wins to put an end to their own March Madness drought. But, they probably will fall a win or two short if they dont beat Michigan tonight for a season sweep of the Wolverines.
If the game is anything like the last two contests, then buckle in. Michigan won a crazy OT game in Evanston last year that proved to be a big swing game for both sides. Last month in Ann Arbor, Michigan held a big early lead. But Drew Crawford, a freshmen, blew up for 25 points, including 11 in a row in the first half to get the Cats back into the game, and 15 in the second half to push the Cats to victory. Michigan took a late lead, but Northwestern scored the game's final 7 points and Michigan's final two possessions ended in shaky turnovers.
Expect another close game tonight as the Wolverines attempt to avenge a painful defeat from earlier in the season. Close games have been killers for Michigan. In games decided in overtime or by less than 6 points, the Wolverines are just 2-6 overall and 0-4 in Big 10 play this season. That's the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT right there. While Michigan tries to reverse its season long bout of bad luck, they do have some historic numbers on their side tonight. The Wolverines are 10-3 ATS vs Northwestern, 8-1 at Welsh-Ryan Arena and the road team has covered four of five in this series. Something has got to give.