ROSEMONT, Ill.-- Northwestern and No. 20 Michigan will square off for the second time in a span of three games as the Wildcats host the Wolverines Tuesday night at Allstate Arena.
Northwestern (14-10, 5-6 Big Ten) has won three of its last four games, the lone loss in that stretch coming Jan. 29, 58-47 at the hands of then 24th-ranked Michigan. The Wildcats had an early nine-point lead at the Crisler Center, but after mustering a 21-19 halftime lead, Michigan pulled away in the second half, shooting 48 percent from the field.
Charles Matthews led the way for the Wolverines in that game with 14 points on 6 of 11 shooting, but Northwestern coach Chris Collins attributed most of the Wildcats' scoring struggles to Mortiz Vagner, who finished with eight points, eight rebounds and two steals.
"Mo Wagner is much improved as a post defender," Collins said. "I thought his physicality down low against our guys made it tough on us to score in the paint. They have good length and athleticism...You add two wings like (Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) and Matthews, those are two long, rangy, quick wings that can wreak havoc out on the perimeter."
Michigan (19-6, 8-4) defeated Minnesota 76-73 in overtime Saturday on the heels of an old-fashioned 3-point play by Abdur-Rahkman with 3.8 seconds remaining. Both Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman played extensive minutes in the gritty victory, something coach John Beilein is taking into consideration heading into Tuesday's rematch with Northwestern.
"We'll try to get some guys some rest, but also try to retool or rethink our approach to Northwestern," Beilein said. "They have a very talented team that has seemed to turn the corner now and is really being consistent defensively and offensively."
Much of Northwestern's defensive consistency has come in the last seven games after Collins made the decision to switch from a man-to-man to primarily a zone defensive scheme, and the results are showing up both on the stat sheet and in the win/loss column. The Wildcats are 4-3 in their last seven games and have held opponents to an average of 62.4 points per game compared to 67.6 prior to the switch.
"We don't see a matchup zone but these two times in conference play," Beilein said of the Wildcats' defense. "Now that we've shown them one package, they will change how they guard us and we've got to find other ways to score."
Beilein is 13-6 all-time against the Wildcats, but Michigan has lost four of its last six games at Northwestern.
As one of two ranked opponents remaining on Northwestern's schedule, Tuesday's rematch with Michigan is a huge opportunity for the Wildcats to bolster their tournament resume after an inauspicious start to the season. Northwestern defeated Wisconsin 60-53 Thursday at the Kohl Center, but has yet to come up with a signature win after cracking the AP preseason Top 25 for the first time in school history.
"We dug ourselves a big hole, there's no question," Collins said of the Wildcats' sluggish start. "There's very, very little margin for error this second half of the conference season, and our guys have to play with that sense of urgency. We've got veteran guys that want to go down swinging."