Eastern Michigan and Michigan will meet up in Ann Arbor tonight at 9:00 on ESPNU. MIchigan was a ranked threat up until they were upset at home by New Jersey Institute of Technology. Zach Travis, managing editor for neighboring blog Maize n' Brew answered a few of my questions about tonight's matchup.
Alex Alvarado: I gotta get it out of my system: NJIT? Really? What happened there?
Zach Travis: Honestly, it was kind of a perfect storm. Michigan has had a tendency to come out sluggish in first halves of games over the last couple years and either fall into big holes or let teams that shouldn't hang around stay close. Combine this with the fact that Michigan is still very young, and especially when you consider that the entire rotation at the four and five are first year players and the only backup giving the starters any rest at the 1-3 spots as of now is Spike Albrecht, a 5-foot-11 point guard.
Michigan has survived so far because the starters at 1-3 are so good (I still contend its the best 1-3 lineup in the Big Ten) and it has found a way to cobble together enough from the front line on a game by game basis. Against NJIT Michigan got very little impact from its front line on offense and defense (all of whom were defensive liabilities against the slashing/cutting Highlander offense) and had an uncharacteristically awful game from Zak Irvin (2/11 from the floor, 1/8 from outside). What did this mean for the team as a whole? Michigan scored 38 points after halftime, and only three of those were scored by players other than Caris LeVert (25 in the 2nd) and Derrick Walton (10 in the 2nd).
When you add in the fact that NJIT shot a eFG% over 70 and 11/17 three point shots, and it is clear that if this game was played another 99 times Michigan would be 10-20 points better in the vast majority of those matchups.
Alas, that is why games aren't played on paper.
AA: It was just two years ago when Trey Burke's big 3-pointer put Michigan into the NCAA Finals. There's a lot of different faces on that team since then, but you're still a well-respected team even after dropping out of the Top 25 polls. What's something that hasn't changed over the past couple years for this program?
ZT: Technically that three put them in the Elite Eight where Michigan ran Florida off the floor (never forget), but I get that that isn't the point. I just really liked that Florida game and like opportunities to continue talking about it.
What hasn't changed is the offense's overall efficiency. Did you know that last year, after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the first round of the NBA draft, that Michigan actually posted a better Adj. Offensive Efficiency rating than it did the prior year?
Michigan's offense has been a thing of beauty the last couple years, and that looks to be the case again this year. Despite the NJIT game and the first half against Villanova, Michigan's offense has largely been the roving death machine it has been recently, and this is still early in the season when Michigan is working through a lot of kinks. Last weekend's loss to NJIT is another piece of evidence that Michigan isn't going to put up the best Adj Off. Eff. in the nation a third year in a row, but as of this writing UM ranks 13th, so Michigan might not be too far off.
AA: Oh! Oh! Spike Albrecht! I've heard of him before. How's he been doing?
ZT: Pretty well, actually. For a player that fans complained about when he was signed out of high school, Spike has come a long way. His performance against Louisville in the Finals two years ago was a bit of an outlier (understatement of the week) compared to the rest of his contributions that year, but last season saw him step up and put together a very effective backup PG season - a big deal as Derrick Walton was still getting comfortable as Burke's heir apparent.
This year, Spike is playing twice the share of minutes he did a year ago, he has a top-50 ORtg, and just recently carved up Syracuse's vaunted zone defense on the way to 11 points, nine assists, three rebounds, and two steals. His size is still a liability on defense (as Michigan found out against NJIT), but he has been a huge part of Michigan's success this season. Expect to see a lot of him tonight.
AA: Rob Murphy went from being an assistant at Syracuse to being a great head coaching hire for EMU, turning things around with his defensive mindset. You guys only won by 3 to Syracuse this season, what made things difficult in that game?
ZT: Michigan failed to close the game out with any efficiency at all, and probably would have lost if Syracuse hadn't gotten a bad case of the yips down the stretch.
Michigan didn't have a ton of success shooting from outside, hitting just 33% of its threes. That was an issue, but against Syracuse it isn't surprising. What was surprising was the way in which Michigan finally broke down the zone: by having Spike Albrecht dribble into the center of it and dish out assists.
I think Michigan's biggest issue was dealing with Syracuse's size and skill down the stretch. The Orange have a lot of talented young players, and while those guys pissed away a few opportunities, they proved to be a tough matchup for Michigan's inexperienced front-court players.
AA: Caris LaVert. Answering what he does well may take a long time to answer, so I'll keep things short: whatdoesn't he do well?
ZT: He likes to shoot a lot of pull up jumpers. Last year that was the major flaw in his game. He shot nearly 40% of his shots from the floor as 2pt jump shots and only hit 31%. A lot of his issues were that he was still rail-thin last year. He bulked up again this season and is finishing slightly better from there. However, it is still the least efficient aspect of his game, and it is something EMU can force him into with the zone.
ZT: Michigan wins.
I don't have much else. After NJIT I don't know what the win is going to look like. EMU has a lot of length, and that zone can give other teams fits - especially if Michigan has issues shooting from outside again. The big issue for EMU is having to play Michigan after its letdown game. I imagine that John Beilein is going to have his team dialed in, and if Michigan comes out flat enough to lose again, there are much bigger issues to deal with.
AA: Anybody want to grab a beer with me in Ypsi after the game?
ZT: I'd be down, but I live in Virginia, so it'd be a pain to make it home in time for work the next morning.