After two very tough games, Michigan returned to play against a mediocre Nicholls State team. The Colonels proved no match for the Wolverines, as Michigan trounced them 91-62 behind strong games from Caris LeVert (24 points), Ricky Doyle (15) and Zak Irvin (14). Two notable absences were Derrick Walton and D.J. Wilson. Walton was out with a sprained toe, and Wilson apparently has a knee sprain but is waiting to see MRI results. Walton has become one of the best point guards in the country, so his loss would be vital for the Wolverines. Whether Walton can go or not, Michigan still has to play a very good Syracuse team. We break down the game down here:
When/Where: 7:30 ET - ESPN - Ann Arbor, MI - MICH -5.5
Like Michigan, this is a very different team than the one that Michigan played in the 2013 Final Four. Syracuse is 5-1 on the season, with their best win coming over Iowa and their only loss to Cal. They average the 18th most rebounds in the country, which could cause a problem for a weak Michigan frontline, and they average over 15 assists per game. Even casual college basketball fans are aware of Jim Boeheim's classic 2-3 zone, Syracuse's defensive scheme since Boeheim took over in 1976. Basketball pundits have labeled this defense lazy at times, but Boeheim is able to keep his players fresh and explains why he has only gone 7 deep in his rotation for the majority of games.
Michigan's biggest test will be inside, where Syracuse has a frontline that can compete with anyone in the country. Forward Rakeen Christmas has been an absolute beast so far, averaging 17.5 points and 9 rebounds per game. At 6'9, Christmas isn't the tallest post player, but he's extremely effective at 59% shooting and has gotten to the foul line 41 times through six games. Also on the front line is 6'10 Chris McCullough, a freshman from the Bronx who is averaging 15 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. It will be interesting to see whether Beilein plays Donnal and Doyle for stretches to help provide some more size down low against the Syracuse front line.
The Orangemen also start point guard Trevor Cooney, a gunner that can play off the ball and is one of their best scorers despite only shooting 40% to start the season. Along with Cooney, Boeheim starts freshman Kaleb Joseph and sophomore B.J. Johnson. Joseph and Johnson are averaging about 8 points per game, but Johnson is averaging over 7 rebounds per game and could be tough assignment for Zak irvin.
Besides for the starters, Boeheim has not gone to his bench much at all this season despite multiple blowouts. The one player who will see a lot of minutes off the bench is Michael Gbinije, a 6'7 lanky guard who has the ability to create turnovers in the passing lane with his length. Sophomore forward Tyler Roberson is the only other rotation player who could factor on Tuesday, but Roberson was held out of the last two games with an injury. If he can't go, Boeheim will be very thin at small forward with a ton of inexperience, so expect Gbinije to play a big chunk of minutes.
Michigan moved to 5-1 on Saturday but has only faced two tough tests in Oregon and Villanova. Syracuse presents an entirely different challenge, with a big front line and 2-3 zone defense that will force Michigan to make shots. This should hopefully work in Michigan's favor, as the Wolverines went 14-24 (58%) on 3's against Nicholls State and generally shoot the ball very well at home.
Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton were Michigan's big 3 to start the season, and have played like it through six games. LeVert is showing why he's one of the best players in the entire country, Irvin has continued to score at a torrid pace, and Walton is able to start the offense and knock the 3-ball with consistency this season. With Walton out against Nicholls State, Spike Albrecht stepped up admirably, scoring 10 points, along with 7 assists, 3 steals and no turnovers in 32 minutes of excellent basketball. If Walton can't go again, expect Albrecht to see the bulk of the minutes at point guard, as Beilein will need an experienced player to help break down the Syracuse zone.
While the backcourt seems to be very solid, the front court still poses questions but is starting to become clearer. At power forward, Michigan is starting to see more production. Starter Kam Chatman, who found himself in a terrible slump to start the season, had his best game in a Michigan jersey, finishing with 11 points and 8 rebounds in 29 minutes of play. Backup Aubrey Dawkins, splitting time between the 3 and 4, played 18 minutes and finished with 5 points and 4 rebounds. If D.J. WIlson can't play against Syracuse, expect these two to receive the majority of the minutes at the 4 spot.
At center, starter Mark Donnal had 6 points and rebounds in 14 minutes of play, but reserve Ricky Doyle once again stole the show, scoring 15 points and grabbing 6 boards in 21 minutes of play. At this point, Doyle seems more comfortable in the offense and knows his role as a rebounding and finishing big. He has shown flashes of his offensive game including a nice hook shot, but right now Doyle does not have enough offensive polish and has too many weapons around him for there to be a necessity to take over the offense.
The Big Ten/ACC challenge provides marquee contests across the country for basketball fans to get a look at excellent early season tests, and this is no different. Michigan will be favored because of the home-court advantage, but I think the Wolverines have more talent than Syracuse. This game ultimately is going to come down to whether Michigan can hit open shots by breaking down the Syracuse zone, or whether the Orangemen are able to force Michigan into sloppy turnovers. Caris LeVert should have a monster game, and I expect the Wolverines to pull this one out 79-72.