Five Key Plays: Syracuse at Michigan

Alejandro Zúñiga

Michigan edged Syracuse, 68-65, in a game that came down to a wild final sequence. Here are Five Key Plays from the Wolverines’ big non-conference win.

1) Christmas paces Orange in the first half

Michigan had no answer for Rakeem Christmas one-on-one, and Syracuse took advantage of that often in the first half. After making his first bucket of the night on an uncontested dunk — following a near-turnover, Mark Donnal had stepped away to cover Chris McCullough — Christmas had no issues backing down Ricky Doyle.

Christmas was sidelined for part of the first half with two fouls, but Jim Boeheim had no option other than to put Christmas back in the game and throw the ball down to him.

Later in the first half, Christmas boxed out both Caris LeVert and Doyle for an offensive rebound and putback, drawing the second foul of the half from Michigan’s big man. When Mark Donnal also picked up his second foul less than a minute later, Syracuse had a significant mismatch with Christmas over Max Bielfeldt, so they fed him repeatedly until halftime.

Christmas finished the first half with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, helping the Orange to a 31-29 halftime lead. Michigan was able to make some adjustments and while it was never able to slow Christmas, it was able to throw enough bodies at him to force the 6-foot-9 senior into several turnovers.

2) Kameron Chatman helps break down zone

Were it not for Kameron Chatman, Michigan coach John Beilein said Tuesday “would’ve been about an eight-point, 10-point game” at the half.

Against Syracuse in the Final Four, the Wolverines fed Mitch McGary at the free throw line — the weak spot of the 2-3 zone — to break down the Orange. Chatman filled that role Tuesday. He got Michigan’s first points of the day on a turnaround jumper there after a nice feed from LeVert, and he assisted on the team’s next bucket by getting penetration and forcing Trevor Cooney to leave Zak Irvin open for a three.

Chatman hit another turnaround jumper at the 10-minute mark and finished with four points and seven rebounds at halftime.

He got the first points out of halftime by attacking the basket from that weak spot and hitting a difficult jumper over Christmas, and he polished off a solid night with a critical open three created by a Doyle ball screen and a dish from LeVert.

Chatman had some less flattering moments in the game as well, but his production was critical for a Michigan team that has been looking (and now appears to have found) contributors outside of its ‘big three’.

3) Spike Albrecht ignites Michigan in the second half

On a night in which Derrick Walton struggled, Spike Albrecht made all the big plays. You’ve probably already seen the behind-the-back dish to Doyle, made possible by Albrecht’s ability to deliver passes into the 2-3 zone and cut through it himself with the help of a ball screen. The pass itself was just icing on the cake.

Albrecht sliced through the zone again at the five-minute mark to find Irvin open for three, made sharp perimeter passes like the one at the seven-minute mark for a LeVert three, and then used a Chatman ball screen to collapse the zone so he could deliver a no-look bounce pass to Doyle for a slam.

When Michigan couldn’t penetrate the zone, Albrecht shot over it, connecting on a deep trey four minutes into the half and again five minutes later.

Syracuse’s zone defense is best known for rendering small guards almost useless, but Albrecht was unfazed.

“Spike is really good at attacking zones,” John Beilein said after the win. “He sees behind the zone, he makes that entry pass into the high-post area better than anybody. That’s why we had him out there so much.”

4) Albrecht knocks down decisive three

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim knows teams generally become more comfortable against his zone as the game progresses. The Wolverines certainly did.

Out of a timeout with a minute to go, Michigan ran a play designed to either get the ball to the high post or kick out for an open three. Doyle set the screen for Walton, who slashed into the middle of the zone. At that point, every Syracuse defender collapsed around Walton.


Spike Albrecht was left with 10 feet of separation from the nearest defender and was calling for the ball. Walton hit Albrecht at the top of the key, and the junior didn’t hesitate as he buried the deep three.

“Derrick did a great job getting into the paint and then drawing the defense in,” Albrecht said. “I don’t know how he found me.”

Michigan led the rest of the way.

5) Syracuse throws the game away

Both Walton and LeVert missed the front end of important one-and-ones with just seconds remaining, but on both occasions, Syracuse gave the ball right back. The first time, after Walton’s shot was short, McCullough’s outlet pass sailed out of bounds. Then, when LeVert’s free throw was too strong, Kaleb Joseph lost his handle on the ball for another turnover.

“It’s just something that, you know, you can’t do that and win games,” Boeheim said. “Two freshmen. Whatever.

“They’re painful lessons that you have to learn sometimes.”

LeVert hit both his foul shots with 4.5 seconds left, and Joseph’s last-second three-pointer missed everything to finally seal Michigan’s win.

  • JimC

    And give Doyle credit just for handling that behind-the-back pass from Spike. Of course his dunk was sweet too. But for a lot of freshmen bigs, that pass just clunks off their hands.

    • ChathaM

      That’s a very good point. The bounce pass from Spike wasn’t an easy catch for a lot of big guys, either. Doyle does have good hands.

    • Champswest

      That was a big problem with Morgan and Horford. Neither one had good hands.

      • Wayman Britt

        Champswest – great point, I remember getting so frustrated when Morgan/Horford use to drop perfect passes. RD seems to have great hands.

        • rlcBlue

          I suspect that Doyle has very big hands (at the end of long arms) which can help. He does look like he’s going to be a good interior player, maybe the best Beilein has ever had.

          I do notice him posting up and calling for the ball frequently. I don’t know if this is a) the team still not having enough of Beilein’s offense installed to run it and thus falling back on what they do know, or b) Michigan’s staff tweaking the offense to match the talents of the current team. We won’t know until we see more of the season play out. I will say that Donnal’s skills fit better with the old school Beilein 5-out none-in offense, while Doyle really needs to be closer to the basket to be effective. So the solution to the Irish Question is more complicated than just saying Doyle is stronger and therefore should start.

          It appears that so long as Beilein wants to start games with at least a facsimile of his full offense, he’s going to keep sending Donnal out there for the opening tap.

      • MAZS

        I’m pretty sure Morgan flushed more than a few interior passes for dunks. Lots of them.

  • bob

    did not max biefeldt red shirt his first year? he now is listed as a senior and does not appear to have a scholarship left for next year. is that so?

    • Madrox

      I don’t know all the details, but Max has been reclassified to a senior. He is in his fourth year of the program and did red-shirt, but both him and the coaches agreed this will be his last year. I assume he will graduate and transfer to a smaller school as a 5th year grad transfer.

      • Correct. Max is a senior and will be able to play anywhere he wants for his fifth year without sitting out.

  • Champswest

    After Spike hit that 3 for the lead with 30 seconds to go, I thought Beilein might go to a two big line up for defensive purposes, knowing that Syracuse would likely try to get the ball down low.

  • countourzealous

    “Two Freshman. Whatever.” Haha, I love coach Boeheim.

  • NorthernBlue

    Spike is a gamer. First time you got that sense was when I heard about him leading his team of unknown players past McGary’s team with Warren, Christon and a few other high major players that I believe were unbeaten that year besides that loss. Obviously we all saw the final 4. The bigger the game, the better he is – and he is starting to believe he belongs more and more each game. Much improved defensively as well.