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Opponent Q&A: Talking Syracuse basketball, the 2-3 zone, and Rakeem Christmas's early season dominance

I get the low down on Syracuse bball this year in advance of Michigan's game against the Orange tomorrow night.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Joining me today is John Cassillo, one of the head honchos at TNIAAM.  Find him on Twitter here, and be sure to read up on Syracuse at one of the best named SBN blogs around (and a great resource for SU sports)

Kenpom currently ranks Rakeem Christmas fifth on its player of the year standings, and it is no wonder why as he ranks among the nations best in just about every metric and is shooting 70% from the floor. Describe his game and what it takes to stop him.

Christmas has been a frustratingly talented player for years -- one who would show glimmers of promise, but then dash them by getting into foul trouble and struggling to stay on the floor. But now, as one of the few seniors on the roster, this is his team. The offense is designed to go right through him and he's relished in the opportunity. Christmas has a ton of length, but is more athletic than bulky, so that creates a ton of mismatches on the inside. He's finally started to understand his limitations too, leading to him driving to the rim more and going for easier shots. The only real way to stop him is to let him stop himself. Get him in foul trouble and the flow of his game is gone pretty immediately since it removes any physicality he'd normally be able to display.

Syracuse lost Tyler Ennis, last year's freshman point guard and eventual NBA draft pick. How has Kaleb Joseph - the new freshman point guard and eventual NBA draft pick - handled the transition to college ball and such a heavy workload (20.0 %poss, 82.2 %min)?

We were spoiled with Ennis last year, that's for sure. He came in NBA-ready and with a summer tour in Canada, he and the Orange came into the season ready to go. With Joseph, there's a learning curve, for sure. So while we may be a bit concerned about some "basketball IQ" gaffes and questionable decisions around the rim, he IS a freshman, so he has some time to deal with those issues and fix them throughout the season. He'll be fine. But the pressure is certainly on him to elevate the team's current lackluster guard play.

How does the 2-3 zone look this year? Not only did Syracuse lose Ennis, but it lost two 6-foot-8 wings (CJ Fair and Jerami Grant). Is the defense susceptible in any way early this year? What would be Michigan's best plan to attack?

The zone is still as effective as ever, though the team has shown some issues in transition. The best way to get after them right now is a solid inside-outside game and shooting the three-ball well. This SU offense can't really come back from large deficits, so establishing an early lead (see: Cal game) is an easy way to take them out of their element and get the zone looking rocky. If Michigan has the ability to run and push the tempo, that'll certainly hurt the Orange.

What is up with Syracuse only hitting 19.8% of its three point shots this year? Is this a major concern, or just a lot of bad luck?

Definitely a concern. I hit on it a bit mentioning guard play above, but diving further in: no one can really hit jumpers on this team (yet). In the past, even when the offense has struggled, we've always had a jump-shooter who could deliver. This year, nothing doing on that front. Trevor Cooney is/was supposed to be the Orange's answer from beyond the arc, but he's been stuck in some sort of funk since ACC play started last year. Michael Gbinije also brought some hope of outside shooting, but so far, he's been MIA as well. Believe me, we're not too excited about this aspect of SU's game. If they can't find a way to hit from outside, Syracuse isn't going very far this season.

How do you see the game going down? Who wins? Player of the game: Caris LeVert or Rakeem Christmas?

I see this one as a low-scoring affair, pretty similar to the last time these teams met -- in the 2013 Final Four. Syracuse's offense is likely to run through Christmas and freshman big man Chris McCullough, so they'll be the keys to how much the Orange can really get on the board. SU will hang tough, but Michigan will (just like last time) hit just enough shots to grab the victory -- let's go with a 67-62 final score. LaVert grabs the MVP, though McCullough (freed up by the Wolverine defense doubling Christmas) gives him a run for his money.