Last we saw Michigan, they defeated Syracuse in the Final Four. We were bitter, obviously. And maybe we still are. Now a lot's changed for both of these teams since that fateful day back in 2013 -- the large majority of the players from that game are gone -- but you can bet that guys like Rakeem Christmas and Trevor Cooney at least keep that loss in the back of their minds as the teams take the floor on Tuesday night in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Below, Zach Travis (who you should follow on Twitter) from SB Nation's excellent Michigan blog Maize n Brew, stops by to chat all about Wolverines basketball. They've already lost a game, just like us, so there's a lot more at stake here than you might think (for both teams). Join us below, and check out our responses there as well:
All of the attention has been on Caris LeVert thus far for Michigan, but it seems like Zak Irvin's started pretty strong as well. Was the latter players' early success a surprise for the team?
Michigan fans have had very high hopes for Irvin — arguably too high given the somewhat poor fit for comparison to Nik Stauskas — and while he hasn't turned into an all-everything surefire lottery pick, it looks like his game took a reasonable step forward. Last year Irvin was Just A Shooter, taking 75% of his shots from outside and hitting 42.5%. This year reasonable improvement for him was diversifying his offensive game, and finding a way to be a positive force on the glass. He has done the first part of that by adding a slashing component to his offensive game, although he still likes pull-up 2pt jumpers too much. He hasn't been a great rebounder yet, but the door isn't shut on that. Michigan needs a scorer to compliment LeVert and Derrick Walton who exist as the primary offensive facilitators. Irvin has filled that role well so far. I'd like to see more, but it is early.
The Wolverines lost to a future opponent of Syracuse's already in Villanova. What can you tell us about the Wildcats and what they prevented Michigan from doing so well?
Villanova's defense did a good job forcing Michigan out of its rhythm for long stretches early in the game. Michigan couldn't handle the aggressive backcourt trapping defense and walked into a few uncharacteristic mistakes. Of course, in typical John Beilein fashion he schemed a way to get overtop of those traps and ended up helping Michigan fight back into the game. Villanova also attacked Michigan inside very well and drew a lot of fouls on post-up plays. Michigan is young and relatively thin up front and this foul trouble ended up playing a big factor down the stretch. I could see Syracuse attacking in the same way.
Where does Michigan struggle most? Early on, it appears teams can out-rebound them.
Michigan hasn't ever been a great rebounding team under John Beilein, and this year the problems are even more stark as the Wolverines are breaking in four new rotation players at the four and five. Michigan's guards do a pretty good job rebounding, but Oregon showed just how bad Michigan can get beat by an athletic team that commits to crashing the offensive boards. Other than that, Michigan has looked to be a bit better at drawing fouls this year, but not substantially. This has always been an area where Michigan's heavily jump shooting offense struggles.
What's the key to this game for the Wolverines? What do they need to do to come out of this one with a victory over the Orange?
First, ball control. Michigan isn't a great defensive team or rebounding team, hence it needs to hold onto the ball better and not give away possessions on anything other than good shot attempts. The Wolverines have been one of the best teams in the country at this in the past few years and look to remain so this year, although I worry about Michigan's young frountcourt against that zone defense.
Second, shooting. Against really good teams Michigan can't afford to go cold from outside. If Michigan is hitting ~40% of its shots from outside, the offense becomes a really fluid, fun thing to watch work as teams overreact and open up other scoring opportunities.
Finally, run smart. Michigan is a very deadly transition offense if and when it pushes tempo (not something that happens much). If Michigan's guards are getting defensive rebounds that sets up more break opportunities where Michigan's offense can get big point swings quickly.
Okay, prediction time: Who wins and why? And sure, let's go with a game MVP too.
I don't have a great feeling about this game. Last time Michigan beat this zone it was because Mitch McGary went all Bill Russell on the Cuse zone, allowing Michigan to work the ball through the high post and taking pressure off Trey Burke (who was just too small to initiate offense against that long zone). I don't think Michigan has a player that can do that (maybe LeVert?) and when Michigan's offense doesn't have an easy time getting the ball into the paint it often devolves into a lot of perimeter screens and long, late jumpers.
On the other side I'm looking for my best Christmas pun and coming up short. Anyway, I think Rakeem is going to be an issue for Michigan's front line all day, and I bet the second half becomes a rotation of Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle that changes every couple minutes as each build up foul trouble. Michigan has the talent to keep this game close, and while I'm not counting out a win, I fear that Syracuse can attack Michigan where it is the weakest. Syracuse by four. Christmas is the player of the game with 20/10 and a big basket in the last two minutes that is a backbreaker for Michigan.