Wednesday, February 9th, 2011, 5:30 CT
Coming off their biggest win of the season, Northwestern is looking to make a run to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats finish the season with seven of their last eight games against unranked opponents. The first matchup comes on Wednesday evening against Michigan.
Michigan enters Wednesday's game on a roll, winning three of their last four games. The young Wolverines are beginning to sync as a team after their early struggles.
Meanwhile, the ‘Cats are hoping to catch fire.
On Saturday, the Wildcats pulled a 71-70 upset victory over rival Illinois. Northwestern is now 14-8 on the season and 4-7 in the tough Big Ten conference.
Now, Northwestern has revived hopes of reaching their first NCAA tournament in program history. The road to a tournament bid appears to be easy on paper, but in actuality, it will be a tough task to win at least seven of the final eight games.
However, the first test comes on Wednesday in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's the first must-win for Northwestern.
In their first meeting of the season, Northwestern dominated Michigan en-route to a 14-point win over the Wolverines. John Shurna led all scorers with 24 points, 22 of those coming in the first half.
In the win, Northwestern held Michigan to under 40% from the field. In addition, the Northwestern bench chipped in with 14 points and nine rebounds.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE WILDCATS: Michael Thompson
This seems like the easy pick, but look at the last two games. Northwestern has had ‘Juice' Thompson at his best. The senior guard nearly carried the Wildcats to an upset over top-ranked Ohio State, and was a huge part of Northwestern's win over the Fighting Illini.
The Wildcats need to ride their senior leader for the final eight games of the regular season, and that starts on Wednesday night.
Thompson is averaging 14.5 points per game and 4.6 assists per game. He is the leader of the Northwestern offense, and the juice (no pun intended) that Northwestern feeds from.
As the case has been recently, Juice Thompson is the key to a Wildcat win.
KEY PLAYER FOR THE WOLVERINES: Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Wolverines are a young team with a lot of potential, and the centerpiece of that potential if Tim Hardaway Jr. The freshman guard is beginning to reach that potential. Since the first matchup against Northwestern on January 18th, Hardaway has averaged 15.4 points per game, and is becoming a major threat in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats need to bring tough pressure on Hardaway and the rest of the young Michigan team to create problems. If Hardaway gets more uncontested looks, then he will continue his impressive numbers.
KEY TO A WILDCAT WIN: Defense
It's no secret that Michigan lacks size. The Wolverines lack the size to compete with the rest of the Big Ten. Their tallest starter is Jordan Morgan, who stands at just 6'8. In the first matchup between Northwestern and Michigan, Luka Mirkovic and the Northwestern big men were able to use their size as an advantage.
Simply put, Michigan is at their best with good guard play.
Northwestern needs to bring another great defensive effort to take down the Wolverines. After holding #1 Ohio State to 58 points and #24 Illinois to 70 points, the Wildcats need their defense to shut down the Wolverines potentially dangerous scorers. Add to it that a good defensive effort makes up for any potential slumps on offense.
The Wildcats need a great effort on each side of the court for a win. If they can do that, they will be one step closer to a potential NCAA tournament bid.