Michigan Bombs Away Toward a Big Ten Title

Posted by rtmsf on February 22nd, 2012

Bill Hupp is an RTC correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp). He filed this report following No. 13 Michigan’s OT win over Northwestern on Tuesday.

For as much as Michigan and Northwestern engaged in a classic Big Ten battle on Tuesday night in a rugged, seesaw affair, it was over with breathtaking offensive efficiency.

Point Guard Trey Burke Has Been Tremendous This Season (AP)

First, Trey Burke stepped into a three from the top of the key after a Wolverines offensive rebound to start the overtime period. Then Zach Novak buried one from the right corner. Finally, Stu Douglass turned out the lights on the Wildcats with a gut-punch from three feet beyond the left wing that sent the purple-clad faithful streaming toward the exits. The win means the Wolverines (21-7, 11-4 Big Ten) kept pace with Ohio State and moved to within a half-game of Michigan State for the conference lead, a place few could have predicted after Darius Morris left for the NBA and handed the reins to a relatively unknown freshman point guard.

But Trey Burke has been Michigan’s best and most consistent player this season. So now it’s essentially a three-horse race for the regular season Big Ten title, and Michigan has to feel good about its position. After all, they have the lightest schedule of those contending teams. In their three remaining games, they host Purdue at Crisler Arena (where they are 15-0), and travel to Penn State and Illinois. The Spartans, meanwhile, still have challenging road games at Minnesota and Indiana before they host Ohio State in the finale. The Buckeyes host Wisconsin and travel to East Lansing to end the regular season.

Michigan’s offense has a balance that allows them to take what the defense gives them. Guys like Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., can get to the rim and create their own shot, but Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone was very difficult to drive against. So Michigan was selfless, worked the ball around the perimeter quickly and found the open man for threes. A lot of threes, in fact. A stunning 67.5% of the Wolverines’ field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. They were 14-of-38, thanks mostly to Douglass (4), Burke (4) and Matt Vogrich (3) off the bench. “There was a lot on the line today,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We’re playing for a Big Ten title and they’re trying to get into the NCAA Tournament. When they went zone, it took us a bit to adjust to it. Once we found a rhythm for it, we had to make shots and we did, especially in overtime.”

While Michigan isn’t the biggest or deepest team in the country, they are tough on defense because four of their seven regulars are similarly sized between 6’3’’ and 6’6’’. So they can switch on all perimeter ball screens and not be hurt by size mismatches. Whatever they lack in quickness, they make up for in veteran savvy and intelligent play. The Wolverines lead the conference in turnover margin and forced 14 Northwestern turnovers while only committing seven miscues themselves.

You can couch it any way you want, but the sense of urgency from the Wildcats was palpable. It says something about Michigan’s resiliency that they were able to come on the road against a desperate opponent, erase a seven-point halftime deficit and four-point late deficit to force overtime, then grab the game by its throat in the extra session. The Wolverines have now won four straight, and Douglass thinks this team has shed the inconsistency that plagued the Wolverines earlier this season. “We’re staying focused and it’s motivating us,” Douglass said of playing for a Big Ten title. “Earlier this [conference] season, if we had beaten Ohio State, we might have come back with a loss. Now we’re starting a [winning] streak, starting to build momentum and that’s important going into March.”

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