Who: 5-1 Syracuse Orangemen
When: 7:30 ET (ESPN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Michigan went out east and scored a nice win against Oregon before dropping a tough one against a very good Villanova squad. In that second game, John Beilein's squad played some of the least effective ball we've seen in some time during stretches, namely the last seven minutes or so of the first half and on into first 10 minutes of the second.
That's going to happen, especially early in a season for a squad with so much youth (what's new?). What is a little more worrisome, if there is anything from which to glean a semblance of worry this early in the season, is Michigan's performance down low. Ricky Doyle showed flashes of top notch play, but, overall the Wolverines were overpowered on the boards by both Oregon and Villanova, and even found it difficult at times to finish at the rim.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone presents a different sort of challenge, as it always does. Most recently, Michigan squared off against the Orangemen in the 2013 NCAA tournament, a game Michigan won 61-56. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke shot a combined 5-for-24 from the field, and the Wolverines shot 39.6 percent as a team.
Needless to say, NBA talent on your team or not (and Michigan certainly has NBA talent now), putting up points against that zone is never easy, and it won't be tonight.
Syracuse entered the tournament last year as a three-seed, only to be ousted by Cinderella 11-seed Dayton in the second round (then still the "third round").
Despite significant losses to the NBA, Syracuse has gotten off to a nice 5-1 start, splitting a pair of games against major conference teams. The Orange edged Iowa, 66-63, in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden Nov. 21. Neither team's bench made a huge impact (8 points for Iowa, 2 for Syracuse) but a 20-point effort from freshman F Chris MCullough and 18 from F Rakeem Christmas were enough to hold off the Hawkeyes, whom they led by 14 with 8:35 to play.
The day before, however, Syracuse dropped its first game, a 73-59 defeat against California. Both Christmas and G Trevor Cooney went 3-for-10 from the field, and SU shot 35.9 percent as a team. Cal found a way to execute against the zone, dishing 22 assists to 12 turnovers; meanwhile, Syracuse managed just nine assist to 11 turnovers.
Despite losing to No. 10 Texas the next day, 71-55, Cal appears to be a decent team, but Syracuse's loss to them clearly wasn't its finest hour. But, again, it's November -- better now than February and March.
Those aforementioned departures included F C.J. Fair, G Tyler Ennis (18th overall pick) and F Jerami Grant (39th overall pick); that's a combined 41.5 points per game, not to mentioned three of SU's top four scorers (Cooney was the fourth, coming in at 12.1 ppg last season).
But, it's Syracuse, and rarely does Boeheim not have talent ready to slot into his system. As for returners, Christmas has thus far led the way with 17.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 2.3 bpg; at 6-foot-9, he's a classic Boeheim big, and will assuredly give Michigan problems, especially if the U-M freshmen encounter foul trouble again.
Helping the senior is the freshman McCullough, who's averaged 15.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg. Sure, some of that is inflated by playing four cupcakes (just like everyone else), but this is a pretty imposing frontcourt, especially for a team like Michigan that has proven itself to be incredibly vulnerable in the painted area without Jordan Morgan's stalwart post defense.
Cooney, a junior, is the resident three-point shooter, with a team-high 33 attempts while averaging 10.2 ppg. However, he's only converted on 27.3 percent of those treys. You'd think that would correct itself eventually, as he shot 37.5 percent from downtown last season. As such, Michigan can only hope he doesn't turn things around against them.
Freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph (8.5 ppg, 5.8 apg) wasn't too aggressive in looking for his shot through SU's first two games, which is understandable given his age. However, he took 10 shots apiece against Iowa and Cal, going 5-for-10 against the former and 3-for-10 against the latter. He's committed four turnovers in three of SU's last four, but he's more than made up for it in the assist department, including an eight-assist effort against Iowa. At 6-foot-3, like Oregon's Joseph Young, he does have very good size for a 1.
Rounding out the starting five, F B.J. Johnson (7.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) completes SU's three-headed frontcourt attack. This is no surprise when playing Syracuse, but the Wolverines will have their work cut out for them on the boards. As always, Michigan will have to lean on guys like Caris LeVert and even Derrick Walton to pick up boards, but you can't always box out and hope a guard picks it up. At some point, bigs are going to have to make big time box-outs and win balls themselves. For all the critique about his offensive game thus far, Kam Chatman has actually done a nice job on the boards; U-M will need him to do well on the boards tonight, especially as his length is a solid matchup against SU's own length.
- Beat the zone down the floor. As always, this is the first thing anyone says about the zone, and is easier said than done. Michigan traded stretches of sheer brilliance with utter dysfunction against Villanova; but, against SU's 2-3 zone, I think getting out of an extended slump is much, much harder (Indiana's 61-50 tournament loss to Syracuse in 2013 comes to mind). Michigan can run, especially when LeVert and Walton are the ones grabbing the boards (after all, they're Michigan's leading rebounders). Beat the zone, and you don't have to go through the trouble of running a zone set that has a very good chance of ending in a deflected pass or a poor look at a three late in the shot clock.
- Stay out of foul trouble. This can't be stated with enough emphasis. Villanova and Oregon went at Mark Donnal, but they really went at Max Bielfeldt, especially when Doyle and Donnal were saddled with four fouls apiece in the 'Nova game. Michigan cannot afford its freshmen bigs to pick up cheap fouls, like the one Doyle took on a hard hedge at the top of the key in the 'Nova game. I don't mean to diminish Bielfeldt's game in any way, but him playing extended minutes against a team like Syracuse will likely end in the Wolverines getting dominated on the boards. Bielfeldt will have his chance to make a positive influence on games, but this is probably not the one.
- Walton vs. Joseph. Joseph has already faced two very good point guards in Iowa's Mike Gesell and Cal's Tyrone Wallace. However, he has turned it over some, and if Walton can make like difficult for the freshman on the perimeter, that could mitigate SU's significant interior advantage, mitigate being the key word.
- Patience and playmaking. Michigan has shown it can pick apart just about any defense when it's firing on all cylinders. With that said, sans Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, the margin for error is slimmer. That means Michigan can't afford to take the first three it sees against that zone, unless it's Zak Irvin doing the seeing; more often than not, any three he takes is a "good" one, even if it's a miss (Dan Dakich has correctly noted that Irvin passing up a decent look at a three is in fact a "selfish" play). With that said, the Wolverines will have to rely on LeVert's ability to squeeze his way into the paint. In this game, pulling up for a jumper likely means a 6-foot-9 guy in his grill, so he'll have to be ready to either kick out to the corner or dump down to whoever is on the block. Doyle has proven to be effective in getting his shot up down low among the trees -- Michigan can only hope he can convert a few tough buckets tonight.
This is going to be a tough one.
On the bright side, this is another great test for a young team. Like the Villanova game, this probably won't be very high-scoring, which makes for a solid primer for Big Ten play.
SU has a serious advantage in the frontcourt, while the Wolverines, I think, lay claim to a similar advantage in the backcourt (this can probably be said about most of Michigan's games this season). Which one ultimately wins out?
This is a fairly lame and reductive point, but home court is vital in college basketball; calls that Syracuse might get in the Carrier Dome, well, they probably won't get them in Ann Arbor.
Also, as a team, the Orange have shot just 19.8 percent from three. Against a Michigan squad that can once again make threes rain from the sky -- and against this zone, they'll be shooting plenty of them -- the Wolverines might be able to ride a hot streak or two to a decent lead and hang on for dear life for a close win.
Honestly, I think this is a coin flip, and when that is the case, I have to go with the team playing at home. Michigan 66, Syracuse 62.