Midway through the first half, Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted in applause. Unfortunately for Northwestern, it had nothing to do with the game at hand.
Pat Fitzgerald stood at midcourt holding the Gator Bowl trophy, and NU fans finally had something to cheer for. The Big Ten opener was that forgettable.
No. 2 Michigan lived up to its ranking Thursday in a 94-66 win against an injury-plagued NU team. It was the highest point total allowed by Northwestern since Nov. 27, 2007 against Virginia.
“We really weren’t able to stop them the entire evening,” coach Bill Carmody said. “I think we have to improve ourselves and get better at everything.”
The outcome was never in doubt. The Wolverines (14-0, 1-0) opened the game on a 20-4 run, made their first six three-point attempts and shot nearly 60 percent from the field in a dominant effort.
While Michigan coach John Beilein credited his team for excellent preparation, he noted the missing pieces on NU. Reggie Hearn, who leads the Cats with 14.5 points per game, sat out with an ankle injury.
“If we lost people like (Hearn and Crawford), we would have the same issues that they have – inexperience in this Big Ten,” Beilein said.
Still, it was difficult to find much fault with the Wolverines. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke – perhaps the best backcourt duo in the nation – combined to score 44 points. Burke tormented the NU defense in the early stages with 13 points in the first five minutes. He showcased his versatile offensive game, mixing perimeter shots with drives through the lane.
“He’s a great all-around player,” senior Alex Marcotullio said. “He makes his teammates better and he’s continuously coming at you.”
Ultimately, defensive lapses haunted the Wildcats. They allowed five Michigan players to reach double-digit scoring totals and wilted from the perimeter. Overall, Michigan shot 59 percent from downtown, and forward Jordan Morgan asserted himself in the interior with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Marcotullio said it was hardly the recipe for success against a strong conference opponent.
“We just had some defensive breakdowns,” Marcotullio said. “You can’t do that at home in the Big Ten and we got burned on it.”
There were very few positive notes for Northwestern. Jared Swopshire appeared to rediscover his shot, tying for the team high with 11 points. Freshman Kale Abrahamson also had 11 and appeared to settle in offensively. But to Carmody, these minor successes were undermined by the absent defense.
Carmody went to the bench early and often, trying to maximize contributions from his reserves. The Cats showed a pulse when Tre Demps – who has been strong of late – made consecutive baskets and NU eventually cut the Michigan lead to 14 with 5:28 remaining in the first half.
The Wolverines continued to respond from the perimeter. Hardaway Jr. made consecutive triples to extend the lead to 20 – forcing Carmody to call timeout. After that, the Michigan lead was never smaller than 17 points. With several inexperienced players, Carmody said leaders like Swopshire and Dave Sobolewski will need to be catalysts.
“They’re going to have to be the ones who make us win,” Carmody said. “Their work will have to rub off on younger guys.”
The Wildcats understand that they have to rebound quickly. They travel to No. 9 Minnesota – winners of nine straight – on Sunday. In the Big Ten, widely considered the best conference in college basketball this season, there is little room for error.
Sobolewski, one of the team’s vocal leaders, was disappointed with the effort. In the weeks ahead, he said the team needs to improve if it hopes to compete with elite teams.
“We keep messing up the same things in the 1-3-1,” Sobolewski said. “We keep missing assignments. We keep falling asleep on defense. A lot of it will come down to heart and how badly we want it.”
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