| The Detroit News
Northwestern has been one of the early surprises in the Big Ten this season.
Projected by most to finish toward the bottom of the conference standings once again, the No. 19-ranked Wildcats have found themselves near the top three weeks into league play.
While that has astonished some heading into Sunday’s matchup at No. 16 Michigan, Northwestern’s early success hasn’t startled senior guard Eli Brooks.
“I honestly thought they were a really good team,” Brooks said Saturday. “They move the ball so well and all their cuts are really decisive. They have a lot of shooters and a lot of talent out there. …They’re hard to guard because they move so quick and cut so well without the ball. That’s a good recipe to win games.”
One of Northwestern’s key ingredients has been its torrid outside shooting, which has generated 36% of its offense. Entering play on Saturday, the Wildcats ranked sixth in the nation in 3-point shooting and second in the Big Ten at 42.4% while averaging 10 made deep balls per game.
According to assistant coach Saddi Washington, Northwestern’s ability to attack off the dribble with guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige and play small with forward Pete Nance at the center spot have contributed to its long-range prowess.
“They do a really good job of playing through him (Nance) when he’s playing the five, really kind of that five-out offense where they space the floor,” Washington said. “Anytime you attack the paint off the dribble, it shrinks your defense and then they’re just loaded out on the perimeter with shooters.
“We’ve got to do a really good job of being in our gap shrinks early to try to prevent as much as we can any downhill penetration. That way we can close out to shooters out on the perimeter a little bit quicker.”
Adding to the challenge is the fact that Northwestern has several sharpshooters. Four Wildcats have made at least 13 3-pointers — which is twice as many as Michigan — and three of them are shooting at least 46% from deep: forward Miller Kopp (19 made 3s; 57.6%), Buie (17 made 3s; 44.7%) and guard Ty Berry (13 made 3s; 46.4%).
While Michigan has been stingy defensively inside the arc — opponents are shooting 38.2% on 2-point attempts, the third-lowest percentage in the nation — Washington noted the Wolverines can do a better job at limiting the long-range damage and guarding the ball out in space.
Michigan ranks last in the Big Ten in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot a league-high 37% from beyond the arc. That was lowlighted by Thursday’s outing at Maryland, when the Terrapins shot 59.1% from downtown and made 13 long balls, the highest marks Michigan has surrendered this season.
“We’ve done an OK job throughout the season so far, but I think we can make that next step,” Brooks said. “We had a few glitches in a couple games that just allowed (opponents) to get over the mark that we want them to have from 3-point line. All in all, I think we’ve done a good job of seeing the actions and recognizing different actions and getting a hand-ball contest.”
Added senior guard Chaundee Brown: “We’ve been getting a lot of hand-ball contests on mostly all the shots. …(3-point defense) wasn’t so good last game, but we drill it every day in practice knowing the scouting report and knowing who are the shooters, especially in transition by running that guy off the line, and actually being in our gaps and helping each other out.”
Brooks said the team wants to hold opponents to six or fewer made 3-pointers per contest. Michigan has done that just once in eight games — against UCF — with every other opponent draining at least seven 3s.
Northwestern, on the other hand, has made at least seven 3-pointers in three of its four conference games — seven in a win at Indiana, eight in a win against Michigan State and a season-high 11 in a loss at Iowa.
“We have a big task ahead of us with Northwestern, a team that’s been red-hot throughout the season and has had some great wins within league play,” Washington said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge, but we’ve got to step up with all the energy, focus and enthusiasm we can to come out on top.”
No. 19 Northwestern at No. 16 Michigan
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Northwestern 6-2, 3-1 Big Ten; Michigan 8-0, 3-0
Outlook: Michigan is one of four unbeaten teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25…The Wolverines have won three straight in the series and have won the past eight meetings in Ann Arbor…Northwestern ranks third in the Big Ten in both offensive (83.6 points) and defensive (65.4 points) scoring…The Wildcats are led by junior forward Miller Kopp (14.6 points) and are coming off an 87-72 loss at Iowa.
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