Nothing is a given on the road in the Big Ten, especially considering the conference currently has seven teams ranked in the Top 25 with two more sitting just outside of it. The Wolverines discussed at length leading into this game how they are now the hunted with their No. 5 ranking placing them atop the conference dogpile.
For Michigan, John Beilein spoke before the game of how his team had yet to face adversity; they got their first taste of it Tuesday night in Evanston against Northwestern, a program that has given Michigan fits on the road the past few years. The Wolverines led by double-digits for much of the first half, but an NBA-range step back three-pointer by Wildcats guard Vic Law cut the lead to just six points heading into the halftime locker room.
The Wolverines opened the second half on a 9-0 run, keeping Northwestern off the scoreboard until 3:47 into the final period. It did not come without its challenges though. Jon Teske and Charles Matthews both reached three personal fouls at the 16-minute mark. It was the first occasion this season Beilein, and his staff had to contend with starters in foul trouble so early, and to the chagrin of Michigan, things fell apart.
Northwestern didn’t just capitalize, the Wildcats did something to Michigan that not even mighty North Carolina or Purdue could accomplish, went on a run that the Wolverines defense could not stop. In just three minutes, Chris Collins’ team went on a 15-2 run to turn a 45-30 game into a 47-45 game. Quick turnovers by Michigan, along with missed shots quickly fueled the Wildcats and sent Welsh-Ryan Arena into a frenzy. As A.J Turner laid in his shot and took a foul with a chance at a three-point play, the Northwestern student section reached a fever pitch.
Jon Teske was able to turn the tide, as he checked back in and the Wildcats went from a run to three straight empty possessions with Teske rebounding the misses. The Wolverines were haunted by three-point shooting all night, finishing 5 for 20 and throwing up shots that were plain bad, including an 0 for 5 from 3PT performance from Zavier Simpson, who found himself riding the bench in place of Eli Brooks during much of the final moments.
Jordan Poole opened the game with five straight points in the opening minute, Michigan’s rising sophomore took it upon himself to close it as well. His dunk with just under two minutes to play ended up being the winning basket for the Wolverines. Poole finished with 15 points in his third straight strong performance under the bright lights. The final attempt by Northwestern’s Ryan Taylor echoed Poole’s game-winner against Houston in the NCAA Tournament last season. Unlike Poole, Taylor’s shot hit the rim and bounced out as time expired. Michigan improved to 9-0 and won in Evanston for the first time since 2013.
Ignas Brazdeikis led Michigan with 23 points on the night, a stark contrast to fellow forward Charles Matthews. Michigan’s captain found himself on the bench just 54 seconds into the game after an early foul, and that set the tone for the rest of his night. Matthews finished 1 for 7 from the field with 3 points and had both a travel and a shot clock violation in the final minute of the game. While it’s better to have these performances in December as opposed to the most critical part of the season, it was still odd to see one of the Wolverines most senior players so out of sorts.
John Beilein’s team survived its first test of the year and will enter the final 18 games of conference play sporting an unbeaten record. It’s four full weeks until Michigan plays another Big Ten opponent; the Wolverines host Penn State on January 3rd. In the meantime, Michigan’s schedule will slow down with finals and winter vacation. Four straight games at Crisler against South Carolina, Western Michigan, Air Force, and Binghamton will allow the Wolverines more time to practice and work on some of the skills they will need to contend with the Big Ten’s best this season. For now, they will leave Evanston knowing they escaped with a victory and proved themselves able to survive their first real adversity of the season.