Guard play will determine Michigan vs. Northwestern winner

Michigan is a young basketball team, and they sure do play like it.

Juwan Howard’s club was in control of the game for all but the final 3 minutes of regulation and the overtime period of the Michigan Wolverines‘lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday. But, as we have learned on countless occasions this season, the Wolverines cannot finish ballgames.

Part of that comes down to guard play. In those final three minutes of regulation in Thursday’s loss, Kobe Bufkin, Dug McDaniel, and Jett Howard were 1-3 with 2 turnovers. That doesn’t include a critical foul from Bufkin that led to an Iowa four-point play, down 4 with 20 seconds left. After that, the game was tied up and the Hawkeyes had all the momentum at home heading to their overtime win.

It doesn’t get any easier for this squad, because next up is a 12-4 Northwestern Wildcats team with some of the best guard play in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are going to be immediately tested again, at home, with much of the fanbase turning on this team already. Their response in this one is going to be the turning point of their season midway through the year. Here are the guys to watch as Michigan takes on Northwestern in Ann Arbor on Sunday at noon.

Chase Audige

Audige is the Wildcats’ leading scorer, and he’s a massive reason that Northwestern has been toward the top of the Big Ten in 2023. He’s always been a volume scorer. For the last three seasons, Audige has averaged 11.8 shots per game, but this year, his efficiency has gone way up.

The senior guard is shooting a career-high 36% from three while attempting the 4th-most three’s in the conference. Add on a 39.2% clip from the field, and he becomes one of the top scorers in the conference.. But, most impressive is his free throw shooting, which has jumped from 54.4% from the line in his sophomore season to 85.2 this year while averaging a career-high in attempts.

And that is just on the offensive end. Audige is also one of, if not, the best defensive guard in the conference. He had 6 steals in the Wildcats upset win over Indiana last week. On the season, he is averaging 2.8 per game, first in the Big Ten. He is more than capable of locking up a key offensive weapon, like Jett Howard, on Sunday. For a Michigan offense that has struggled in games throughout the season, that would certainly be a worst case scenario.

Boo Buie

Boo Buie has one of the coolest names in the conference, and he lives up to it on the court. He’s scored double-digits in all but two games this season and has scored 20 points three times, all in wins.

What makes him dangerous is driving to the basket where he draws a bunch of fouls. In the Wildcats’ upset win over Illinois last week, Buie shot 12 free throws and hit 11 of them on his way to 15 points. Even though he was an abysmal 2-13 from the field, he scored 15 points because of his free throw percentage. On the season, he is at 89.1%, top marks in the conference. When he is attacking the rim, Northwestern is a dangerous team on the offensive end.

The way the Wolverines can take advantage is by taking away the drive, which won’t be easy. Buie is just 28.2% from behind the arc despite attempting 6.4 three’s a game. If Michigan can keep him at the perimeter, he will likely struggle. The super senior guard is at career lows from deep while at a career high attempts.

It will be one of Dug McDaniel’s toughest guards of the season, and he has shown that he can be an ample defender. At the same time, he has made just as many silly mistakes that have led to big plays and big points for opponents. The Wolverines will need McDaniel and some help defense in lockdown mode to honor in Buie’s offensive output on Sunday.

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