Michigan coach talks about his team's first Big Ten road game at Northwestern on Tuesday night. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — With each passing game, the bull's-eye on Michigan’s back continues to grow.
The Wolverines have gashed and dispatched every foe who has crossed their path by at least 17 points while soaring up the rankings and putting the nation on notice.
But if there’s one team No. 5 Michigan has learned to not overlook, it’s Northwestern.
The Wolverines have lost five of the last seven meetings on the road and haven’t beaten the Wildcats at their place since 2013. And it’s unlikely Northwestern is going to provide a warm welcome Tuesday night in the team’s first marquee matchup at the newly renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“When we went to Villanova we weren’t the hunted, but now we are,” Michigan coach John Beilein said on Monday. “We're going to have be that type of team that's going to go on the road knowing that you come in here with that target on your back and we expect you to perform.
“The other team is going to have extra juice when you're playing a highly rated team. If ratings mean anything right now, certainly the opposing coaches would love to talk about that.”
For the Wolverines, though, the last two trips to Illinois have also resulted in heartbreak and hard lessons. Two seasons ago, Michigan lost on a full-court pass and layup at the buzzer, a painful finish that helped propel a postseason run that ended against Oregon in the Sweet 16.
Then in last season’s road game — the second meeting between the teams in eight days — Michigan’s offense went cold in the second half against Northwestern’s matchup zone, which remains its last regular-season loss before it ripped off 14 straight wins to reach the national title game.
“I'm sure any loss there’s some residual effect there, but when you get beat I think it's probably very sobering for people to understand, ‘What could I have done different?’” Beilein said. “Our games have been extremely close with them and there's always a few things that I know better to do, or the coaches say we know better than to call that action and we didn't. I think everybody grows every time.”
Junior center Jon Teske said the team learned a lot about itself, albeit the hard way, in last season’s loss to the Wildcats and it served as a turning point for the rest of the season.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who suffered an ankle injury two minutes in the game, said the humbling result led to more communication on the defensive end and helped the team collectively settle on its switching patterns the rest of the way.
All of that has been absorbed and has carried over to this season.
“The first time we played them they had the deadly zone that I never seen before in my life, so it kind of caught us off-guard and we kind of took it was we got to go back and work on some zone offense because we were not ready for the zone defense,” Livers said. “We didn't really have our defense down pat like we do now. It's definitely going to be a different story now.”
While the Wolverines have only played in one true road game this season — at Villanova— Teske said the team is equipped to win away from Crisler Center because it has shown an ability to stay connected, stay calm and stay under pressure throughout all the runs, highs and lows in a game.
And it doesn’t hurt to have defensive-minded captains like Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews who make certain everyone follows their lead, and an adaptable offense that can react to whatever defense is thrown at it, whether it’s a zone or a switching man-to-man.
“We were pretty gritty if you saw how we ended last year on the road and in neutral (court) situations,” Beilein said. “That Penn State, Maryland finish last year was pretty impressive for those kids, and we have to be that way. There's no other option in the Big Ten.
“We’re going to have huge crowds, near capacity or at capacity every game. We're going to have to be gritty or we won't win.”
It’s a lesson Michigan has paid attention to while it embraces bracing for every team's best shot.
“Coach B talks about staying humble and we're going to have a big target on our back just because we went to the national championship and did what we did last year,” Livers said. “We kind of take it as we deserve it. Why not us? We worked really hard every day in practice, so why can't we be in the top five?
“We just got to take it as everybody is going to be coming for us and we got to be ready.”
Michigan at Northwestern
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.
Records: No. 5 Michigan 8-0, 1-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 6-2, 0-1
Outlook: Following a $110 million renovation to Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern returned to its on-campus facility after playing last season at Allstate Arena. The Wildcats are 4-0 at home and have four players scoring in double figures, led by senior forward Vic Law (17.6 points)…Dating back to last season, Michigan has won 22 of 23 since losing at Northwestern on Feb. 6, with its lone loss coming in the national title game.