Ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in more than 20 years, the Michigan Wolverines continue their magical season as they play host to the Northwestern Wildcats in a Big Ten Conference clash on Wednesday evening at Crisler Arena.
Northwestern is currently three games over .500 (12-9) for the season, but the team has lost more than its won since the start of Big Ten play (3-5). The Wildcats are coming off a 64-49 setback at Nebraska, and they have alternated wins and losses in their last seven bouts, which if that trend were to continue, it would need to beat the No. 1 team in the land in this, it's 18th such venture all-time. NU is 3-2 in true road games this season.
At 19-1, Michigan is off to the best 20-game start in school history. The last time the Wolverines owned the top ranking in the AP poll was back on Nov. 30, 1992, and this is the fourth different season in which they have held the No. 1 ranking. The Maize and Blue have won three straight since suffering their lone defeat of the campaign (56-53 at Ohio State), with their most recent triumph coming in a 74-60 final at Illinois this past Sunday. Michigan is 12-0 at home here in 2012-13, and 27-1 at Crisler Center over the last two seasons. This year alone, the Wolverines are outscoring their opponents by a whopping 24.8 ppg at home.
Michigan leads the all-time series with Northwestern, 106-56, and the Wolverines have won the last four meetings, the most recent of which being a 94-66 rout of the Wildcats in Evanston on Jan. 3 in the conference opener.
In the earlier win over NU, Trey Burke scored 23 points and Tim Hardaway, Jr. added 21, as the Wolverines used a near-60 percent shooting effort to quell the upset bid of the undermanned Wildcats. Northwestern's leading scorer, Reggie Hearn, missed the game due to injury.
Hearn missed the mark more times than not in the recent loss at Nebraska, going a mere 2-of-11 from the field in tallying a scant six points. Northwestern instead was led by Dave Sobolewski and his 21 points, while Jared Swopshire logged a double-double consisting of 11 points and 16 rebounds. Hearn's poor shooting was indicative of the team's lackluster showing overall, as it made good on only 32.1 percent of its field goal attempts, which included a woeful 6-of-29 showing from 3-point range. Conversely, the Cornhuskers shot 45.1 percent from the floor and used a 43-34 rebounding advantage to keep the visitors at bay. Hearn does in fact lead the team in scoring, hitting 48.4 percent of his total shots, including almost 37 percent of his long-range tries, to net 14.0 ppg. The loss of Drew Crawford (13.5 ppg) continues to haunt the 'Cats, but Sobolewski (11.5 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Swopshire (9.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg) have tried their best to pick up the slack. Still, NU averages just 64.2 ppg, but does a nice job defensively in yielding only 61.5 ppg.
Burke poured in 19 points and dished out five assists to lead Michigan to its recent win at Illinois, as the team hit 52.5 percent of its field goal attempts, while holding the Illini to just 37.1 percent. In addition to Burke, Nik Stauskas (14 points), Hardaway, Jr. (12 points) and Glenn Robinson III (12 points) all reached double figures as well for a UM squad that outscored its hosts in the paint (42-32), off turnovers (22-15), in fast-break points (10-4) and in bench points (17-10). Burke (17.9 ppg, 7.1 apg) continues to make his case for Big Ten Player of the Year, and Hardaway, Jr. (15.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Stauskas (12.7 ppg) provide plenty of production to what is arguably the best backcourt trio in the conference. Up front, both Robinson III (12.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Jared Morgan (6.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) provide support, and are good enough that opposing teams can't simply hang out on the perimeter in an attempt to limit the potential scoring chances of UM's talented guards. The team as a whole averages 78.5 ppg, laying claim to positive differentials in scoring (+19.3), rebounding (+7.8) and turnovers (+2.5).