Afterwards, the Wolverines left no doubt: it's an honor they've earned.
Northwestern came out with intensity and competed the entire game. The Wildcats had their share of struggles, with Alex Olah the only player in double figures. But a dominant Michigan squad put on the kind of show that attests to its big-time March aspirations.
It all started with point guard Trey Burke, who drained a three to open the game and befuddled the Wildcats all evening with his craftiness and skill. Earlier in the week, Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody praised Burke's ability, and the sophomore guard certainly showed his range of skills Wednesday night. The player of the year candidate scored 18 points and delivered eight assists to his outstanding supporting cast.
Nik Stauskas drained timely three-pointers to keep the Wildcats at arm's length. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III proved their NBA lineage, thriving in transition and giving their opponents fits. And like most of the Wolverines' opponents, Northwestern couldn't keep up with that firepower.
Another NBA legacy, Jon Horford stepped up big-time in place of the injured Jordan Morgan. His 10 points and 7 rebounds gave Michigan the inside presence it needed. Head coach John Beilein had to have been happy with the reserve big man, who played a season-high 20 minutes and filled in admirably.
Michigan does so many things well, it's hard to argue with its ranking. For a team that loves to run, it turned the ball over only twice. Defensively, the Wolverines limited Northwestern to 37.1% shooting from the field, and more importantly, 4-19 from behind the arc. Bill Carmody's team was often forced into tough looks, and had some difficulty managing the clock early on.
There's a clear reason why Michigan is ranked first, starting with its 19-1 record. They have strong leaders on and off the court in Burke and Beilein, which bodes well as the regular season heads into its final month. Players know their roles, and barring injury, this team is as dangerous as any.
And with their level of talent, the Wolverines don't have to play their absolute best to win, while opponents generally must. Northwestern certainly didn't do that Wednesday, and Michigan capitalized with ease.
But hey, what do you expect from the best team in America?
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