Though the Michigan men’s basketball team last faced Syracuse less than two years ago, just three players on the current roster were there to take part.
The game, of course, was the 2013 National Semifinal, an action-packed precursor to then-freshman guard Spike Albrecht’s national coming-out party two nights later against Louisville.
Albrecht, now a junior, played sparingly in the game. But he managed to make a lasting impression, shooting 2-for-2 from 3-point range in front of 75,350 fans at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, helping the Wolverines to a 61-56 win.
“Game experience is the only way you’re really going to get used to that sort of situation,” Albrecht said. “But we want to take good shots and good 3’s. We don’t want to just be jacking, just because we’re settling.”
Though Albrecht played just five minutes in the game, he and junior guard Caris LeVert — also of 2012’s Fresh Five class — have found lessons that they can pass on to the younger players who have yet to deal with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s formidable 2-3 zone.
“It definitely helps, just being there and being on the big stage — that was a big game, so we had a lot of pressure on us,” Albrecht said. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to go out there and look foolish. You want to go out there and know what you’re doing and be ready to execute.”
The accuracy from long range helped fellow point guard Trey Burke break down the Orange’s tenacious ‘D’ by extending its defensive formation outward and spreading it thin in the middle, leaving room for Mitch McGary to shoot, drive and distribute from the top of the key.
Ultimately, it was McGary who made the difference against Syracuse. In the midst of a breakout tournament that elevated him, too, to national prominence, McGary’s presence in the middle was the key in overcoming the notoriously tricky defensive alignment.
McGary finished with 12 rebounds — five on the offensive end — along with 10 points, six assists and two blocks.
But McGary and his production, obviously, can’t help the Wolverines now. LeVert said that though Michigan has options, he isn’t yet sure who’s capable of being the center-court presence capable of draining a 10-foot jumper, driving for a layup or dishing to the corner in search of an uncontested 3-pointer.
“I don’t know yet,” LeVert said. “We’ll see. We have a lot of guys capable of passing the ball in the middle and knocking down that shot, so we’ll look at our different options.”
Albrecht’s noteworthy entrance notwithstanding, it was LeVert who made the biggest impact against Syracuse in the Final Four among players on the current roster. LeVert played 21 minutes and scored eight points off the bench for the Wolverines.
LeVert was also credited with an assist on a play that might have been the season’s high point. With six seconds remaining and Michigan leading 59-56, Tim Hardaway Jr. saved a ball from going out of bounds along the Michigan baseline, and the ball wound up in LeVert’s hands.
It didn’t stay there for long, as LeVert found forward Jordan Morgan on an outlet pass. Morgan dunked it through with two seconds remaining, sealing the Wolverines’ trip to the National Championship Game.
“I think that was a pretty cool moment,” Levert said. “The J-Mo dunk, the finish and how we ran on the court and celebrated.”
Despite the formidable zone, which he described as “like any other zone, except for it’s just longer and a lot quicker,” LeVert turned the ball over just once.
“It took a couple possessions to get used to it, but once you get used to it, you have to try to attack it in any way you can,” LeVert said. “We’ve been watching some film of that zone, and we’ll watch more.”
Syracuse, also, has seen remarkable turnover since the 2013 showdown. But senior forward Rakeem Christmas, then a sophomore, played a substantial role in the game for the Orange — he started and played 23 minutes, brought down five rebounds and scored five points.
“It’s going to be difficult because that’s where all our youth is,” Beilein said of Michigan’s tough defensive task in the post. “(Christmas) has been around for a little bit and has really evolved into a true low-post presence. So that’s going to be a tough one.”
Beyond not knowing who can play in the middle or defend the low post, an injury to sophomore guard Derrick Walton Jr. has cast a shadow over Michigan’s outlook in the backcourt.
Walton didn’t practice Sunday, and Beilein said he could decide his status during Monday’s practice or even close to game time Tuesday. But LeVert said the amount of time he spent at point guard in practice recently has been “about the same, maybe a little bit more.”
Despite the precautions being taken in case Walton can’t play, LeVert said, “Derrick is getting better.”
An interesting possibility for Beilein, however, is playing multiple low-post players simultaneously, a look he hasn’t tried out this season. With freshman forward Ricky Doyle’s recent emergence as a bona fide offensive presence, he could spend time alongside redshirt freshman Mark Donnal — or even senior forward Max Bielfeldt — around the key.
“They’re going to learn a lot about playing low-post defense at a very young age,” Beilein said of Donnal and Doyle. “With Syracuse playing 100 percent zone, (using two forwards at once) is more of a possibility than normal.”
INJURY UPDATE: In addition to Walton’s uncertain status for the Syracuse game, Beilein announced Monday freshman forward D.J. Wilson’s knee injury will keep him sidelined for “maybe three to four weeks,” and the team might explore a redshirt year in order to preserve his eligibility.
“That would be another thing we’d look at,” Beilein said. “Obviously, we don’t have to do that until we do that. … We’ll take a long, hard look and see if we need him.”
Though on paper the move spreads Michigan thinner at the forward position, it might not have much of a long-term impact on the season. Wilson hadn’t been playing substantial minutes and struggled when he did, averaging just 0.4 points in 4.8 minutes per game.