ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan Wolverines knew they were going to have to focus a lot of energy on stopping Northwestern’s complicated offense.
Their solution? Not making any mistakes on the offensive end of the floor.
The top-ranked Wolverines turned to ball over only twice — both times in the second half —and rolled to a 68-46 victory over the Wildcats on Wednesday.
“Was it really only two?” coach John Beilein asked, scanning his stat sheet. “That’s usually one of the first numbers I check, but today I was looking more at our defensive stats.”
Beilein couldn’t remember a game in which his team had committed so few turnovers, dating to his college debut at Erie Valley Community College in 1978.
“That might be a record for me,” he said. “I remember a lot of games where we’ve had two in the first minute, but never only two for a game.”
Star guard Trey Burke was equally surprised by the stat, which matched the lowest by a Division I team this season.
“Two? Really? Wow,” said Burke, who led the Wolverines’ offense with 18 points and eight assists. “I know one of them was on me for an offensive foul, but I didn’t know that there was only one other one.
“That shows you why this is a great team. We really value taking care of the ball, and everyone is so unselfish. We’ve got a bunch of guys who can put the ball down on the floor without giving it up.”
For the record, Michigan’s first turnover came midway through the second half, when Mitch McGary grabbed a rebound and unwisely decided to lead the fast break. He lost the ball at mid-court, but got back in time to force a defensive stop.
The lack of turnovers, combined with the Wolverines’ usual shooting prowess — they shot 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent on 3-pointers — meant they could spend most of the night worrying about defense.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody is a firm believer in the “Princeton Offense,” an attack filled with ball movement, player movement and constant back-door cuts that gives Beilein nightmares.
“I’m about to have a birthday, and it is officially my 60th,” Beilein said. “But I think I’m going to celebrate it as my 72nd. I’ve had to coach against Northwestern 12 times, and I think every one of those games has aged me by at least a year.
“There’s no other team that forces us to prepare like we do against one of Bill’s teams.”
Burke thought that was why Northwestern was able to stay in the game in the opening minutes, even as the Wolverines hit 10 of their first 11 shots.
“They’ve got an incredibly complicated offense, so it is tough for our scout team to give us a true look at it,” he said. “Those guys do the best they can, but it still takes a while of seeing the real thing before you can get used to everything they do.
“Once we did that, we were able to start getting some stops.”
The key moment came late in the first half, when McGary kept a play alive with one of his three offensive rebounds. Tim Hardaway Jr. took advantage with a 3-pointer, Nik Stauskas added another triple on Michigan’s next possession, and McGary made it 34-18 with a pair of free throws.
The Wolverines led by 15 at the intermission and were never seriously threatened down the stretch. Michigan now heads to Indiana for a Saturday-night showdown against No. 3 Indiana.
“It’s going to be a big game, and it will get a lot of attention being on Super Bowl weekend,” Beilein said. “But if you want to go to the places that we want Michigan to go, you’re going to be playing a lot of interesting games in February and March. That’s how this works, so we better be ready.”
The Hoosiers are just the first step in a tough 11-day stretch for Michigan. After Indiana, the Wolverines return home to face Ohio State, then go to Wisconsin and Michigan State.
A 4-0 record in that stretch would give the Wolverines complete control of the Big Ten race, and even a 3-1 mark would put them in the driver’s seat.
“We’re playing really well right now, but we know that it is only going to give tougher,” said Glenn Robinson III, who had 13 points. “These next couple weeks are going to be great.”