Off to their best start in nearly 30 years, the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines open the Big Ten Conference portion of their schedule on Thursday night in Evanston, Illinois against the Northwestern Wildcats.
At 13-0, Michigan is one of only four teams still undefeated this deep into the season, and the Wolverines are chasing the 1985-86 squad for the best start in school history (16-0). UM is coming off an 88-73 win over visiting Central Michigan, marking its second straight home victory over an intrastate foe from the Mid-American Conference -- 93-54 over Eastern Michigan on Dec. 20 being the other. At the conclusion of this bout, Michigan will return home for a pair of conference games versus Iowa and Nebraska before facing two major obstacles in tilts at No. 8 Ohio State on Jan. 13 and No. 9 Minnesota four days later.
Northwestern comes into conference play sporting a record of 9-4, with its latest game against Brown resulting in a 63-42 victory. This bout brings the curtain down on the Wildcats' season-long, five-game homestand, although Welsh-Ryan Arena hasn't been all that friendly to NU thus far, as it is just 6-4 there. The first few weeks of Big Ten play will be extremely challenging for the 'Cats, as five of their first seven league tilts are against teams that are ranked in the top-11 in the most recent AP poll.
Michigan owns a 105-56 lead in the all-time series with Northwestern, and the Wolverines have won the last three meetings, including back-to-back overtime affairs last season.
Michigan has run roughshod through the bulk of its first 13 opponents, averaging 80.1 ppg while allowing just 58.5 ppg. The Wolverines boast four double-digit scorers in the form of guards Trey Burke (17.8 ppg, 7.4 apg), Tim Hardaway, Jr. (15.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Nik Stauskas (13.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), as well as forward Glenn Robinson III (12.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg). The team knocks down its field goals at a 51.1 percent clip, with 40.7 percent of its 3-point tries finding the bottom of the net, while foes are shooting just 40.2 percent from the floor, which includes a 30.7 percent showing from beyond the arc. Add favorable margins in both rebounding (+8.5) and turnovers (+3.2) and it's easy to see why the Maize and Blue have nary a blemish on its record to this point. Burke scored 22 points and matched his career-high with 11 assists, logging his second double-double of the season, in leading UM past Central Michigan the last time out. Robinson III was one point shy of his career high as he netted 20 points, and Stauskas tacked on 19, as he and Burke combined for nine of the team's 11 3-point baskets. Michigan turned the ball over only three times in the double-digit win.
Northwestern drained a season-high 13 3-pointers in handling Brown with relative ease two days before Christmas, as Dave Sobolewski scored every one of his team-high 14 points in the second half to complement eight assists. Sobolewsi was the only Wildcat to reach double figures, but five others tallied at least eight points. Overall, NU shot 48.9 percent from the field, but only attempted five free throws. As for the Bears, they were held to 30.6 percent field goal efficiency, and converted only 4-of-14 tries from long range. The Wildcats are averaging 67.8 ppg while yielding just 59.3 ppg, and they are shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point land. The loss of senior Drew Crawford (shoulder) for the rest of the season hurts as he was netting 13.5 ppg, thus leaving Reggie Hearn (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Sobolewski (11.3 ppg) as the team's only double-digit scorers at the moment. Hearn has been hobbled by an ankle injury but he is expected to make a go of it in this game.