Michigan Wolverines: Northwestern Wildcats

EVANSTON, Ill. -- In the offseason, Trey Burke told the media he thought the Wolverines were national title contenders.

At the time, it seemed like a stretch. There were questions worth asking: How good were the freshmen? Would the Wolverines defend? Could they really get to that next, almost imperceptible level -- where elite college hoops teams reside?

By now, it's long since official: Burke was right.

Of course, if you needed the confirmation of a 94-66 blowout at Northwestern, you probably haven't been paying attention. It's not so much that Michigan won its Big Ten road opener against a banged-up, overmatched Wildcats team in a split Welsh-Ryan Arena Thursday night. It was the manner with which the Wolverines so coolly and clinically dissected said overmatched Northwestern, the way Burke took the game over early, the way he got the Wolverines their 10-0 lead, the way he and his teammates kept pushing the pace and stretching the lead and pouring it on, the way they immediately and constantly snuffed out any and all thought of a nascent Wildcats comeback.

And it was the way the Wolverines -- starting with Burke -- all calmly shrugged the whole thing off.

"We came out, we made the right plays, and we got good shots," Burke said. "That was our goal, to come in and try to make a statement from the get-go. It's our first Big Ten game."

Burke said the Wolverines knew Northwestern guard Reggie Hearn would miss the game, and that his loss alongside guard Drew Crawford's, would make things easier for Michigan, even if he refused to acknowledge it before or after the game.

"We have to keep that attitude where guys are still doubting us," Burke said. "We can't go into a game thinking we're just going to blow a team out."

Of course, that's exactly what the Wolverines did, buoyed by a return from previously injured guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who returned from an ankle injury that kept him out of action against Central Michigan Saturday to score 21 points in 31 minutes. When Hardaway's shots started falling early -- after Burke had already crossed up Northwestern's hapless defense with noticeable, Chris Paul-esque ease -- Hardaway's hot shooting was a harbinger for the rest of the night.

By the time it was over, Michigan had shot 34-of-57 (60 percent) from the field and 13-of-22 (59 percent) from beyond the arc, and scored 1.4 points per possession on the road in their Big Ten opener.

Any way you slice it -- bad Northwestern team or no -- a 28-point road win in your Big Ten opener is some kind of statement.

"We're still trying to make believers out of a lot of people," Burke said.

Some quick thoughts on Michigan's wire-to-wire 94-66 drubbing of Northwestern Thursday night:

Overview: Northwestern never had a chance. Any version of this Wildcats team -- even one at full strength, with injured stars Reggie Hearn and Drew Crawford or long-since-suspended JerShon Cobb -- would have had a brutally difficult task keeping this Michigan team from scoring at will Thursday night. But that's not the current Northwestern team. Missing all those players, with an undersized backcourt and little besides Alex Olah in the paint, the Wildcats were obviously overmatched. Michigan opened up a huge early lead and never looked back -- oozing confidence all the way through.

Turning Point: The opening tip. That sounds like a joke, but it really isn't: Michigan went up 10-0 by the 16:48 mark -- Trey Burke had seven of those points, including two ankle-breaking moves (one that led to an open 3, one that left poor Dave Sobolewski in the dust) -- and genuinely never looked remotely like losing control of the game from there. The lead was 33-13 at the 10-minute mark, and 51-30 at halftime. In recent seasons, at something like full strength, Northwestern has been at best a foil and at worst a tough out for the Wolverines in Welsh-Ryan. That wasn't the case Thursday night.

Key Player: Trey Burke. Michigan had a handful of impressive performances. Tim Hardaway, Jr. returned from injury on point from the perimeter. Nik Stauskas shot well (as usual) and put the ball on the deck enough to keep defenders honest. Mitch McGary finished with eight boards, and showcased a little open-floor defensive work with an early steal and fast-break dunk. But Burke was the one worth the price of admission. He was in control of the game the entire time -- see the aforementioned opening burst, or his 15-point, 6-for-10 first half performance -- but more than anything it was the way he handled the game. Nothing was rushed, nothing was difficult, and nothing was beyond his control. The Wildcats were unable to put up much of a fight, but I don't care: Burke makes it all look way too easy.

Key Stat: In the first half, the Wolverines finished 21-of-36 from the field and 8-of-13 from from beyond the arc. And then it was over. Good luck defending that.

Miscellaneous: Welsh-Ryan Arena has a pretty great little basketball ambiance; its size makes it intimate, and its age helps it feel vaguely old school. But that purple court is every bit as bad as it looks on TV. (My Twitter replies seemed torn on whether it was drawn with colored pencils or markers. Your mileage may vary.) ... Northwestern had a rough night at the office -- the highlight was definitely when the school introduced football coach Pat Fitzgerald, fresh off a 10-win season, as the "best college football coach in the country," which made visions of a displeased Nick Saban dance in my head -- but freshman center Alex Olah was a bright spot. For a guy who only the most hardcore recruitniks had heard of before he signed with NU, Olah looks like much less of a project than he should be. His ball control could be better, but he has a fledgling hook shot over both shoulders, and he moves well (and intelligently) without the ball. He's a keeper.


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