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2016 Big Ten Tournament Preview: #8 Michigan vs. #9 Northwestern

The Wolverines and Wildcats tip off Thursday's action in Indianapolis

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines and Northwestern Wildcats open the second day of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday when they tip off at Noon ET. The Wolverines, who won the lone matchup between these two teams 72-63, enter as two-point favorites to win. Northwestern, on the other hand, looks to beat Michigan and move on to face #1 Indiana in the quarterfinals.

Here are three of the biggest keys to the game

1. Michigan needs this win. Bad.

ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi currently has Michigan listed in the "Next Four Out" category to make the NCAA tournament, and to break back into the thick on contention, the Wolverines absolutely need to win this game. Previously thought to be rather safe bet to go dancing, John Beilein's team has lost four of their last five games, albeit against quality teams like Maryland, Wisconsin and Iowa. Without a win here, Michigan will likely be playing in the NIT, their second year in-a-row of missing the Big Dance. That's why we can be sure that the Wolverines will come out firing.

2. Can Derrick Walton step up for the Wolverines?

With Caris LeVert being significantly limited most of the season, Walton has had to step up and play the most minutes of any player on the team (avg. of 33.1 MPG). While doing so, he has also been developed into one of the best scorers on the team. Walton will be crucial for Michigan especially going up against Northwestern's best scoring threat, Bryant McIntosh. The battle of the point guards is going to be a crucial one to watch, as both teams are led in scoring from that position. Walton may be quicker, but McIntosh is a better passer and finished the regular season second in the conference with 6.7 assists per game. It will be interesting to see if each can force the other's hand in today's matchup.

3. Can Northwestern exploit the post?

The biggest (no pun intended) advantage that the Wildcats have from a roster standpoint is a true center in Alex Olah. Michigan doesn't have a pure defensive answer for the Romanian senior who put up 19 points in the last meeting between these two squads. Northwestern head coach Chris Collins will likely have much of his team's gameplan focused around getting Olah the ball in the paint and letting him do what he does best, back opponents down. With a distinct height advantage (Olah is 6-11, Michigan's projected starter Mark Donnal is 6-9), look for the Wolverines to bring a double-team down into the post. This will give Olah the opportunity to kick out to perimeter shooters like Aaron Falzon and Tre Demps, both of whom can hit from distance. We'll see if the Wildcats can put this offense to work effectively.

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KenPom.com has the Wolverines favored with a 57% chance of victory. This should be an interesting game to watch, and one that you do not want to miss. It all starts at noon ET on BTN.