With a bevy of talented freshmen and arguably the nation's best point guard, Michigan looks better prepared to manage without one of its top players than Northwestern is.
The second-ranked Wolverines will likely be sans Tim Hardaway Jr. again Thursday night as they open Big Ten play on the road against the Wildcats, who will be missing Reggie Hearn.
Michigan is 13-0 for its best start since winning its first 16 games on the way to a Big Ten championship in 1985-86. The Wolverines are seeking their fourth consecutive win against Northwestern, but Hardaway, the team's second-leading scorer with 15.8 points per game, could miss his second straight contest with a right ankle injury.
"He did a few things yesterday," coach John Beilein said Wednesday. "He's going to do a few things more tomorrow and we'll figure out what he can do. But we really don't know more until he stretches himself a little bit more in practice.
"It's one of those things that needs just enough rest to be healthy the rest of the year."
Michigan didn't need Hardaway for its 88-73 win over Central Michigan on Saturday. Beilein inserted freshman Caris LeVert - a redshirt a month ago - in Hardaway's place in the lineup, starting him alongside fellow first-year players Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. LeVert responded with a season-high nine points while Robinson and Stauskas finished with 20 and 19, respectively.
Robinson is averaging 12.1 points and a team-best 5.9 rebounds while Stauskas ranks second nationally in 3-point percentage at 56.5.
The Wolverines are led by sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who tops the team with 17.8 points per game. Burke is averaging 7.6 assists over his last eight contests while committing a total of eight turnovers, a steadying influence on his younger teammates.
"Trey is the most veteran sophomore I've ever been around," Beilein said. "He has unbelievable poise for someone who is only a couple months into his sophomore season - you watch him out there, and it's like we've got an old veteran running the offense. That's important, because he's out there with a lot of freshmen."
Northwestern (9-4) already lost senior Drew Crawford - and his career average of 12.8 points - for the season after he suffered a torn labrum last month, and is now also without leading scorer Reggie Hearn (14.5). He will miss his second game in a row with an ankle injury sustained in a 70-68 loss to Stanford on Dec. 21.
Their absences will likely demand greater contributions from the Wildcats' own freshmen trio of Alex Olah, Tre Demps and Kale Abrahamson, who are averaging a collective 17.3 points but combined for 26 in a 63-42 win against Brown on Dec. 23.
"We're just going to have to figure it out a little bit," coach Bill Carmody said. "We might have to use a few different lineups. But we felt we had some depth coming into the year.
"We're probably right now about eight deep with guys who have played. Some of the freshmen and new faces are going to have to play a little more."
Northwestern lost both meetings last season in overtime, with Burke scoring 19 points in each.