C Rakeem Christmas - Syracuse: When Christmas has been on the floor, he has been very, very good this season. The problem is, he has been in foul trouble in every game. The key for Christmas, and the Orange, is to play smart basketball in order to limit his fouls. Michigan is not especially big along their frontline, and Christmas has an opportunity to exploit that. He will be critical to the success of Syracuse’s offense.
F Trevor Cooney – Syracuse: Michigan has several outside shooters who will pressure the Orange zone. Syracuse only has one real threat who could get hot from the outside. Cooney has to be good for Syracuse to pull off a road upset. Take good shots, make open looks from the outside and even dribble drive when the opportunity presents itself.
G/F Zak Irvin – Michigan: Irvin is a deadly shooter and the leading scorer for the Wolverines. He attempts seven threes per game, and is shooting 45% from beyond the arc. This after shooting 42% last season in a reserve role. Irvin is athletic and strong in transition. He is not much of a threat off the bounce, but will really test the Orange zone.
G Caris LeVert – Michigan: LeVert is Michigan’s best player. He can score from anywhere on the floor, is hitting 50% of his shots from beyond the arc, and leads the Wolverines in rebounds, assists and steals. He is a bigger, longer guard who will put pressure on the Orange backcourt.
Michigan Offense vs. Syracuse Defense
Michigan head coach John Beilein has a lot of experience coaching against the Syracuse zone. While a lot of that history was not positive for Beilein, he has a solid plan for neutralizing the Syracuse defense.
Look for the Wolverines to overload one side of the floor in their half-court offense in order to get open looks for their shooters. Beilein employed this strategy when he was at the helm at West Virginia and did so in the Final Four matchup two years ago.
Both Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert can really shoot from the outside. Both will force the Syracuse zone to expand, leaving the middle even more vulnerable. Derrick Walton, Michigan’s third leading scorer is also lethal from the outside at 47%. He will be a game time decision for Syracuse. Off the bench, Spike Albrecht is hitting 43% of his three-point attempts. Albrecht will be in line to get even more minutes if Walton can't go.
In the middle, forwards Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman are the primary threats. Chatman is the better passing forward, and could spend some time at the free-throw line, the sweet spot in the zone. Donnal and Doyle have not played a lot of minutes early. They are inexperienced, but have the athleticism to go at Rakeem Christmas. They will try to get him in foul trouble early, which he has struggled with throughout this season.
LeVert is probably best suited to handle that spot, however.
The lack of extreme size for the Wolverines will limit their ability to crash the offensive boards, a weakness of the 2-3 zone. A lot of Michigan’s offensive success will be dependent on how they are shooting from the perimeter.
Syracuse Offense vs. Michigan Defense
Michigan is going to play man defense, but may mix in some zone because of Syracuse’s lack of outside shooting. The Wolverines will put pressure on the Syracuse ball handlers, but are not especially adept at forcing turnovers.
The Michigan frontcourt features Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle and Kameron Chatman. They stand at 6-foot-9, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-7. Donnal, the biggest and strongest inside presence, only plays about 15-minutes per game. Doyle only about 14.
All three frontcourt contributors are freshmen. Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas will have an experience, athleticism and strength advantage on the inside. But he has been foul prone. The Michigan bigs are underrated in their ability on the offensive end. This matchup will be critical as Syracuse needs Christmas to stay on the floor.
None of the Michigan bigs are rim protectors.
Chris McCullough will be another athletic, big body for Syracuse that will test the inside defensve of the Wolverines. He has been Syracuse’s most dynamic offensive player despite being a true freshman.
On the perimeter, Syracuse usually has an advantage in size. That is not the case against the Michigan guards. Zak Irvin stands 6-foot-6 and Chris LeVert 6-foot-7. They should be able to frustrate true freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph and Trevor Cooney. The Orange will have to take care of the ball in this matchup.
Michigan has played better basketball early in the season than Syracuse, specifically on the offensive end. Their abundance of outside shooters will force the Syracuse zone to expand. The Orange, on the other hand, will rely on their inside game for buckets. This game being played in Ann Arbor gives the Wolverines yet another advantage. It should be a good one and a battle of contrasting styles between two coaches intimately familiar with one another.