No. 24 Michigan and Northwestern each have one big question going into the first of two Big Ten conference meetings in a span of eight days on Monday in Ann Arbor.
For Northwestern, is it bouncing back and rounding into the form many thought it would have for the entire season after being ranked to start the season?
For Michigan, how motivated will the Wolverines be to essentially play for conference and NCAA tournament seeding from here on out?
Starting with Northwestern, there were a lot of expectations for the Wildcats this season after they qualified for the NCAA tournament last year for the first time ever and entered the year ranked No. 19 in the preseason poll.
Despite that, the Wildcats have not met those expectations. However, the last two games might be a sign of a second-half turnaround for the Wildcats.
Northwestern recorded a nine-point win at home over Penn State and an eight-point road win at Minnesota. A win at Michigan (17-6, 6-4 Big Ten) would bring Northwestern (13-9, 4-5) back to .500 in the conference as the conference schedule moves into hits second half.
"I sense a little bit better bounce to our step and the guys are excited," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.
Collins said he has noticed on film the team is simply doing everything better on offense, from moving and cutting harder to attacking the basket better.
He also said playing more zone on defense has helped improve the communication of his players defensively and allowed his team to play smaller lineups that create better matchups.
Northwestern's game at Minnesota was the first of three straight road games and five of the next six away from Evanston, Ind., so this likely will be the stretch that determines whether Northwestern can threaten to nab its second straight NCAA berth.
"There is no margin for error," Collins said. "We were able to get out of it without too much damage in the first half. We have a number of road games coming up. This is a big one and I know our guys sense the urgency of the game and to play a good team like Michigan."
Senior guard Scottie Lindsey (14.0 points per game) and senior guard Bryant McIntosh (13.0), who missed time earlier this season with a knee injury, lead the way for the Wildcats, who will have six days to prepare for the Wolverines.
Michigan is coming off a 92-88 loss at league-leading Purdue on Thursday, which put the Wolverines four games behind the Boilermakers in the league standings and essentially eliminated it from conference title contention.
Michigan, which earned an impressive win on Jan. 13 at Michigan State, has lost two games to Purdue by a combined five points and lost at second-place Ohio State.
Only a 20-point loss at Nebraska could be considered a disappointing defeat for Michigan, which will have to refocus on other goals with a regular season conference title likely unattainable.
After playing Northwestern, the Wolverines will face Minnesota on Saturday at home before playing four of their final six conference games on the road.
"We played some really good teams and this team twice, tough," Michigan coach John Beilein said after the Purdue loss. "It means you can play with a lot of people. But just playing with them wasn't why we're here. To win was why we're here."
If Michigan plays like it did against Purdue, it will be difficult to beat.
The Wolverines were terrific offensively, shooting 60.3 percent from the field (35 of 58) overall and 56.5 percent from 3-point range (13 of 23).
Junior forwards Charles Matthews (14.4 points per game) and Moritz Wagner (14.3) lead the way offensively for Michigan.
The teams will meet again just over a week later on Feb. 6 at Northwestern.
Updated January 29, 2018