Death From Above: At Northwestern Comment Count

Brian February 21st, 2012 at 12:55 PM

Northwestern[1]THE ESSENTIALS

WHAT Michigan at Northwestern
WHERE Welsh-Ryan Arena
Evanston, IL
WHEN 7 8 PM Eastern, Today
LINE M –1 (Kenpom)

Remember when Michigan hadn't been to the tourney in ten years? Multiply that by infinity, give them a shot, and that is this game. Sippin' on Purple:

Hey, Northwestern's playing tonight! And it's not important at all! BREATHES HEAVILY INTO PAPER BAG) Hahahahahahahaha basketball is fun! (DIES)

So, Northwestern fans experiencing the team's first true bubble run don't really know how to feel. It turns out I've mastered the correct feeling, and here's how you do it: AFJKLSDSA;KLFJDL;ASJKADLS;KJFDAS WHAT WHAT IS HAPPENING AHHHHHH AHHHH EVERY SINGLE BASKETBALL GAME WE PLAY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER TO HAPPEN EVER AND I'M NOT EVEN JOKING. There. Just be like that.



One of these pictures is of John Shurna, but which one? Okay, fine, you got it. It's the beak. Dead giveaway.

Penn State is terrible, Purdue is at home, and by the time Michigan plays Illinois Champaign will be in the throes of civil war. Thus tonight's game against Northwestern is Michigan's most daunting hurdle left. Kenpom says @ Illinois is more difficult but Kenpom cannot take the breakdown of civil society there into account.

Meanwhile, the stakes. Oh, the stakes. If Michigan wins they'll probably double their chances of getting a share of their first Big Ten title since 1986. If Northwestern wins they probably double their chances of getting their first tourney bid since the Big Bang. If Northwestern gets to 9-9 in conference they are in, and they have games against Iowa and Penn State left. Road game, sure, but their path to the a bid is clear if they defend home court tonight. Expect Welsh-Ryan to be bats. What's that, Stu Douglass?

"That gym's pretty small and it doesn't get too loud"

Expect Welsh-Ryan to be double bats.

The Wildcats got the preview treatment already. The main change since then has been due to injury: Luka Mirkovic has been out with an ankle sprain that must be of the dreaded "high" variety for him to miss so much time. In his absence, secret albatross John Shurna has played a lot of center—Northwestern's primary lineup these days is basically Michigan's lineup with Smotrycz on the floor and Morgan on the bench. Mirkovich did not play against Minnesota on Saturday and it doesn't seem like he'll return today.

Northwestern will go to a bigger lineup with post-type guy Davide Curletti, who got twenty minutes against the Gophers. Curletti is a lot like Mirkovich statistically but has significantly lower usage and turns the ball over a bit more. This may be due to Curletti playing more against Big Ten competition. Curletti's not much of a concern from the floor (low usage, 44%) or line (57%) and might see his time against Michigan reduced since the rebounding imperative will be lower than it was against Ralph Sampson III and company.

Northwestern also has guard JerShon Cobb back after a long injury absence. His numbers this year are too thin to draw much from; last year he was an inefficient offensive player (45% from 2, 30% from 3, few free throws but few turnovers). He has a reputation as a defensive stopper, however, and may be placed on Burke in an effort to slow him down. The Minnesota game was his first significant playing time since the Illinois game before the first Michigan-NU matchup of the year; he went 0-3 from the floor (all threes) in 24 minutes but had five steals.

Those are the relative newcomers. The team's engine is still John Shurna and Drew Crawford, who you know about. Shurna has massive usage, plays 92% of the time, never turns the ball over, and shoots 43% from 3. Crawford's got Hardaway-level usage, never turns the ball over, and shoots 40% from 3. Both are around 52-53% from inside the arc. They're quality.

628x471[1]The third banana is coming on like gangbusters as the season draw to a close. That's freshman point guard Dave "Sobocop" Sobolewski (right), who is averaging 14.8 points per game over the past six. He's got 22 assists to 8 turnovers in that span and is hitting 56% of his threes. He's only had one stinker in there (three points against Indiana) and if he can keep that up Northwestern's going to be hard to beat on their home floor.

Though Sobolewski was just okay against Michigan the first time out he impressed with his ability to get to the basket. Again: Michigan should closely monitor all Northwestern recruiting classes for opportunities to violate gentleman's agreements.

Aside from the three bolded fellows and the guys who need no introduction there aren't many other players to mention. Only two bench players got more than a minute against the Gophers: Curletti and Alex Marcotullio. He and Reggie Hearn are generic Northwestern low-usage guards with a lot of threes and not much else. Hearn does get off a decent number of two pointers.


It's been a while since Michigan eked out a two-point OT win over the Wildcats in Crisler. Since that game Northwestern has gone 5-5 in the league. They beat Michigan State at Welsh-Ryan and then took care of some of the league's poorer teams at home; they also helped initiate the Illinois death spiral by beating them 74-70 at Assembly Hall, Champaign Edition.

On the less-happy side of the ledger they suffered double-digit road losses against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Purdue, a five-point road loss against Indiana, and a two-point home loss against Purdue.


Conference four factors:

Factor Offense (Rk) Defense (Rk) Avg
Effective FG%: 54.4 1 52.9 10 49
Turnover %: 17.1 4 18.4 7 20.8
Off. Reb. %: 24.6 12 36.3 12 32.5
FTA/FGA: 40.2 4 38.7 2 36.5

Northwestern is Michigan only moreso. They are getting hammered on the boards in the post-Mirkovich era, and while they make up for that with excellent shooting on the offensive end—as a team they are hitting almost 40% of their threes in the Big Ten—they can't make up for the crappy defensive rebounding with good FG defense like Michigan does. As a result they're the second-worst D in the league, in front of only Iowa.

As you might expect, Northwestern launches a huge quantity of threes (44%, 7th nationally) and gets a ton of assists (65% of made field goals are assisted, 6th nationally); they also give up a lot of threes at a high rate of success and a low plenty of assists themselves.


Run 'em off the line. In a marked contrast with every other team in the league, Michigan should not have to double when the ball goes in the post—if the ball goes in the post—and can stick with their shooters. If Curletti is going to put it up, fine. If Shurna's willing to work for a two, fine. If a team that's hitting 40% from three gets a bunch of them, not so much.

The key thing to watch here is Sobolewski and Crawford penetrating. Without a post presence, Northwestern generates its open threes with a lot of penetrate-and-kick. Sobolewksi was effective at this in the first game. Trey Burke is going to have to D up a lot more than he did against the passive Aaron Craft. Stu Douglass will likely draw Crawford, and that will be okay unless he starts sinking a bunch of contested jumpers. Which could happen.

Anyway: reducing the numbers of threes taken is a priority. Michigan did a good job of this in the first game, holding the Wildcats to just 13 threes. That and a ton of offensive rebounding (17 on 44 opportunities) eventually gave them the win despite shooting 7 of 30 behind the arc themselves.

Morg-ownage: possible? Shurna at the five has been a problem for a lot of Big Ten defenses. Michigan would seem in better shape than most with Jordan Morgan, a relatively quick center who has the stamina to chase Shurna around the court. If Morgan can cope defensively, Michigan should have an advantage on the other end of the court when it comes to offensive rebounding. Yes, they're more than rumors.

Is that likely? Well… Shurna had 21 points on 15 shots in the first matchup. So maybe not. Morgan may be able to outrun most centers in the league but guarding Shurna on the perimeter has been an issue. So then you've got Smotrycz, whose defense is… inconsistent.

Morgan needs to dominate the boards here to make up for what will be an awkward matchup with Shurna.

Make some threes. Northwestern gives up a ton of quality three point opportunities and allows opponents to shoot 50% from two. There aren't a whole lot of bad shots when you play the Wildcats.

Michigan just has to hit them. That 7 of 30 thing is going to be tough to overcome on the road. Michigan's been judicious and effective from deep in the past couple games. Let's hope it continues. If Michigan can hit 35% instead of 23% they will win comfortably.

Yes, this bullet is basically "score points!"

Bench help. Matt Vogrich can be useful in this game; Evan Smotrycz will have a relatively even matchup when he's in at the five.


Michigan by one. Sippin' On Purple's Rodger Sherman literally dies. The second part is not a part of the Kenpom prediction, at least not yet.


UMHoops rounds up recruiting and previews tonight. Rod Beard has an interesting article on Michigan's preparations for the Northwestern offense:

"If we play the way we play against everyone else, it opens things up for things they want to do offensively, such as back-door plays and cuts," Jordan said. "We have to figure out how to make a new habit in two days (of practice)."

But for Jordan, his task is daunting because he doesn't want to miss a single detail or not be prepared when the game plan is presented in practice to the players and coach John Beilein.

"The goal is to eliminate surprises. You want to try to crack the code," he said. "You want to give some sense of what maybe to expect, but a lot of it is personnel-driven."

That Sippin' on Purple item is also a game preview.



February 21st, 2012 at 1:15 PM ^

On paper, Michigan should beat Northwestern. But for some reason, Northwestern gives Michigan trouble. Since Coach Beilein has been at Michigan, 2007, Michigan is 5-4 against the Wildcats:

2007-2008 - Split (won at Northwestern, lost at home to Northwestern).

2008-2009 - Michigan sweep (won at home and at Northwestern).

2009-2010 - Northwestern sweep (lost at home and at Northwestern).

2010-2011 - Split (won at home, lost at Northwestern).

2011-2012 - Won at home.

Average margin of victory for Michigan against NU is 6.6, average margin of defeat for Michigan against NU is 9.25.


February 21st, 2012 at 1:12 PM ^

I'm rooting for Northwestern to make the NCAAs but I'm hoping they do so by winning at home vs OSU instead of us!

I'm feeling Jordan Morgan coming alive for a twenty point game here.


February 21st, 2012 at 1:23 PM ^

Hmm, Rodger Sherman at Sippin' on Purple writes just like Brian.  Or maybe Brian writes just like Rodger Sherman.  Or maybe all college sports blog guys write like each other.  I don't know, I haven't read them all (yet).



February 21st, 2012 at 1:28 PM ^

Northwestern on the road is an unusual barometer, I think these gus see it like that and will respond accordingly.  Michigan plants their flag in the "elite" teams category  tonoght and flat out dominates a good team on the road.  Hardaway eclipes 20 for the game, gets on a roll early and often and puts NW away before the first half is over.  Good guys big 77-63.

marco dane

February 21st, 2012 at 1:58 PM ^

I got to thinking about three six mafia and JaMarcus Russell. BLUE 68 purple 53.

The possibility of Michigan bringing in a fourth cruit???? Scholarship breakdown doesn't show a additional one. something MIGHT be afoot...hnnn!?


February 21st, 2012 at 1:39 PM ^

As big of a game as this is for NW, it's also a huge game for us. We have a Big Ten title and high NCAA seed on the line here, so it's not like we don't have a lot to play for.

Naked Bootlegger

February 21st, 2012 at 1:43 PM ^

I think the best defensive matchup on Shurna is Novak.   But this probably can't happen if Shurna is playing the "5" spot.   I say we roll out the following lineup at times tonight:






No height?  No problem.  NW is allergic to rebounding, and Vogrich has shown a propensity to mix it up on the boards.   I think Morgan and Smot still get the brunt of the load at our "5" slot tonight, but I wouldn't be afraid to play a tiny lineup against NW.






February 21st, 2012 at 1:47 PM ^

What about playing Christian at the five guarding Shurna for a bit? It would allow some rest for Morgan, not hurt us on the boards and he'd be able to d up Shurna pretty well. Just make him run around a lot on the offensive end to wear out Shurna a bit and never give him the ball.


February 21st, 2012 at 6:35 PM ^

I'm not scared of this game as many others are.  Mirkovic being out is big for NW, against us especially.  I agree with the sentiment of sending a "smaller" lineup up there at times tonight, i.e. Vogrich getting some PT.  I can see stretches of NW being up a few points, but by the end of the game, I think Michigan will have it locked down.