The No. 15 Northwestern Wildcats (4-1, 2-1 Big Ten) have a little bit more Big Ten play under their belts than the No. 16 Michigan Wolverines (6-0, 1-0 Big Ten) do, but they are coming off Thursday’s heartbreaking upset loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, while Michigan had no trouble taking care of business against the Wisconsin Badgers, 92-49, on the same day.
The defending Big Ten regular season co-champion, Northwestern came into this season with very high expectations. The Wildcats have solid wins over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (Dec. 14) and Purdue Boilermakers (Dec. 17), but the unranked Cornhuskers’ Sam Haiby made a layup at the buzzer to take them down.
The Wildcats will be hoping to bounce back when they face the Wolverines at 5 p.m. ET on Sunday (ESPN2).
Veronica Burton has been the surprise star for Northwestern, outshining the media’s Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, Lindsey Pulliam. Burton, who was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2019-20, has scored 20 points per game (up 8.4 from last year) and has kept up the good work on the defensive end with 4.8 steals per game (first in the nation), including a career-high-tying six on Thursday. She is shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc with 11 makes in five games.
Pulliam has been ice cold from distance (18.5 percent) but is still averaging a solid 15 points. She is followed in the scoring column by starters Sydney Wood (13.8), Jordan Hamilton (9.2) and Courtney Shaw (8.4). However, the Wildcats are getting very little production from their bench.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s Naz Hillmon may be exceeding even her lofty expectations so far this season with 24.7 points per game — up 7.3 from her scoring average last year. Nebraska transfer Leigha Brown has also improved (from an average of 14.4 points off the bench for the Cornhuskers in 2019-20 to 19.3 so far this year).
Amy Dilk, thought to be Michigan’s second-best player entering the season, has seen a small dip in her scoring average (down from 11.6 to nine), but is averaging five assists (up 0.5 from last year) and has thus helped others improve their scoring. Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown round out the Wolverines’ starting five and average 10.8 and 9.8 points, respectively, giving Michigan quite the scoring attack. It is averaging 88.5 points per game to Northwestern’s 77.
Michigan hasn't faced any major tests yet, though they did beat the previously ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish by 10 points on Dec. 3.
No. 16 Michigan Wolverines (6-0, 1-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 15 Northwestern Wildcats (4-1, 2-1 Big Ten)
When: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, IL
How to watch/listen: ESPN2/MGOBLUETV or Radio: WNUR Sports
Key to the matchup: Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton. Michigan has major advantages in all three shooting categories and rebounding, while Northwestern has a major advantage in turnover margin. Given the fact that the Wolverines hold their opponents to 35.9 percent shooting from the field and 25.6 percent shooting from distance, they may be able to overcome the turnover disparity, which means Northwestern will need to improve in many areas in order to win. The Wildcats are certainly capable of doing so, but it must start with their star players stepping up.
Reason to watch: The Big Ten has the most ranked teams out of any conference in the nation and the race to win its regular season crown should be exciting. This is a big-time matchup that could have a big impact on that race.