somehow we're only 124th
12/2/2014 – Michigan 68, Syracuse 65 – 6-1
It wasn't quite as audacious. Michigan had actually run some offense and the launching point wasn't halfway between the three point line and half court. But it wasn't uncontested, and neither was it anywhere near the line. Spike Albrecht raised up, and it felt a lot like a game a couple years ago in a much bigger arena.
Spike wasn't even a novelty at that point. A 5'11" freshman averaging eight minutes a game with Brent Petway-level usage, he was a weird spare part people were still ticked at Beilein for snatching away from Appalachian State at the last second. He'd hit some threes; a couple games earlier he'd unleashed a wicked court-length bounce pass to GRIII long after the VCU romp had descended into delightful farce. That was about all anyone knew about him.
So he comes off the bench for a whopping four minutes against the Orange, in the Final Four, and this guy who looks like he's president of the local chapter of the Young Insert Political Party Heres ends up taking a 35-footer. It goes down, because that game featured a ton of tiny guards against the tiny-guard-murdering Syracuse defense and Michigan beat it by shooting from the courtside seats.
A game later Spike was a national fave-rave tweeting at Kate Upton specifically because he was a nobody. In living rooms across the country, Carls cried out to Mabels that the kid from Pleasantville—Tobey something—was winning a national championship. A nation got its cheek-pinching muscles nice and limber.
Yesterday a healthy swathe of Syracuse fandom saw this shot go up and thought not that guy. Anyone but that guy. I project that at least a half-dozen fell to their knees in despair before the shot even went down.
These people were not just thinking about one shot two years ago. They were thinking about the Globetrotters-but-necessary behind the back assist to Ricky Doyle that had Crisler about losing its mind, about Spike defying every piece of conventional wisdom about Syracuse's long-ass 2-3 zone. That conventional wisdom: small guards perish.
As conventional wisdoms go, this is a good one. There is a ton of evidence in favor of this point of view. Trey Burke had three points in that Final Four game. That year's highly-touted one-seed version of Indiana looked hopelessly inept as they went down in a Sweet 16 game. Iowa barely crested 0.9 PPP earlier this year, with PGs Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons putting up 77 and 56 ORTGs in 52 minutes between them. Six-foot guards loathe the appearance of Syracuse on the schedule.
5'11" don't curr though. Michigan's offense functioned best when Albrecht plunged into the middle of these five gentlemen, a gnome amongst the ents, and invariably found the open man. It was stunning as it was happening and the box score is just as jaw-dropping.
Nine assists. Zero turnovers. 11 points on eight shots. Two very sneaky steals. Hell, three rebounds. In a game where scraping over a point per possession was a Christmas miracle, Spike put up an ORTG of 177. 177!
It's not a fluke. When Derrick Walton missed a game against Iowa last year, Spike had seven assists, no turnovers, and four steals in 35 minutes. It was midway through his seventh Big Ten game last year when he coughed up his first TO. His A:TO ratio this year is 34:4. Michigan is increasingly relying on him as a de-facto starter. He had 32 minutes against Detroit, 35 against Oregon, 27 against 'Nova, 27 against 'Cuse.
Those are the numbers. The eye is even more excited. Spike has gone from a guy who can take the pressure off your main ball handler to a guy extremely aware of the gaps his penetration opens up. His previous tendency to dribble the air out of the ball is all but gone, replaced with an incisiveness that, yes, reminds you of That Other White Point Guard.
As Dakich said on the broadcast after Spike's Globetrotter assist: that was not flash. It made the play. I got a bit frustrated at the passivity of the Michigan offense in the first half, and then I got leery when Michigan tried to screen its way to the interior, because doing that against 'Cuse is asking for a long arm to poke the ball away. I got a little despair-y about it. Then Spike started slashing his way in, utterly confident in his handle, using the fact that he's low to the ground as an advantage. By the time he blew the roof off the place he wasn't a bench player with a cute story.
He was a crutch.
Spike has arrived. He still looks like a whippet interning for Senator Gnome Butterpants IV, but if you try to pinch his cheek your hand is going to look like Syracuse's vaunted zone after he plunges into the lane.
[After THE JUMP: some all-time Kenpom territory approaching?]
According to Spike Albrecht, Ricky Doyle doesn't have a nickname yet, though he's "a bit of a wild man."
As for Doyle, when asked what it feels like to be a fan favorite, he said he didn't even hear his name chanted in high school.
One of those has already changed. The other should any moment now.
While Zak Irvin led the team with 18 points, it was Albrecht and Doyle who made the difference in the signature win of Michigan's season thus far. Spike broke the Syracuse defense in the second half time and again, doing what you have to do to beat the 2-3. His three three-pointers, including the go-ahead bucket with under a minute left, hit them over the top; when he weaved his way into the heart of the zone, he dished out nine assists, including a Sportscenter-worthy behind-the-back feed to Doyle for an and-one dunk.
Doyle did what Michigan's other centers could not: finish, with authority at that, while matching up physically with Syracuse star Rakeem Christmas, who feasted in the first half with Doyle in foul trouble and cooled in the second when Doyle played all but four minutes. After the game, Doyle discussed the physical progress that made this night possible; since getting to campus, he's cut his body fat from 18% down to 10%. It's hard to say who played a bigger part in Doyle's performance: Albrecht or Jon Sanderson.
In front of a raucous Crisler Center crowd, it appeared as though the Wolverines would pull away in the second half after a tightly contested opened stanza; with seven minutes to go, back-to-back threes by Albrecht and Irvin put Michigan up ten. Syracuse responded, however, spearheaded by hot outside shooting from Trevor Cooney, who made four second-half threes; Christmas knotted the game at 63 with just under a minute to play.
After Albrecht's three put Michigan ahead, then Syracuse's Michael Gbinije cut that lead to one with an impressive runner off the backboard, what had been a well-played game took a turn for the ridiculous. Derrick Walton missed the front end of a one-and-one, only for Cuse's Chris McCullough to chuck the ensuing outlet pass out of bounds. Caris LeVert had another opportunity to put Michigan up three at the line, only to miss the front end of his potential pair; after Syracuse rushed up the court, Kaleb Joseph lost the handle and had to foul LeVert after a wild scramble.
This time, LeVert calmly knocked down his free throws, and Joseph's desperation attempt to tie fell well off the mark as the buzzer sounded.
As the four factors indicate, Michigan won this game not with their shooting—though that perked up quite a bit after they went 3/17 from beyond the arc in the first half—but by taking care of the ball, something Syracuse, with 19 turnovers, couldn't accomplish. Equally important was Michigan's rebounding; facing a big Syracuse team that crashes the glass with aplomb, the Wolverines essentially matched their rebounding rate.
The effort of freshman Kameron Chatman should also be noted; he hit a few critical jumpers en route to 10 points and did yeoman's work on the boards, finishing with nine rebounds. LeVert struggled with his shot, netting his 12 points on 16 shot equivalents, but he helped keep the offense going with six assists. Irvin's three-point shooting (4/11) proved critical, and his first-half breakaway dunk—which, yes, should've been an and-one after he got undercut—provided an early highlight.
Returning from a toe injury, Walton struggled, going just 1/7 from the field. So did Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt, neither of whom could slow down Christmas. Albrecht and Doyle had them covered, though, and that was enough to take down a very strong opponent.
Now, about that nickname...
11/20/2014 - Michigan 71, Detroit 62 - 3-0
Blow-by. [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
Apparently necessary perspective. Hoo boy, I guess making the point that having three players account for over three-quarters of the team's points may not be ideal in the long run equated to PANIC for many. It's admittedly difficult to make a nuanced point in a gamer written moments after the final buzzer, so allow me to flesh this out a little more.
It's November. The team has five scholarship non-freshmen. Of course there are going to be growing pains, areas of concern, and the like at this juncture. That's far from saying those issues won't be resolved, or at least mitigated, as the season progresses; on the flip side, that doesn't mean those areas aren't worth pointing out. Michigan is too reliant on their three starting guards right now. The freshmen centers and Kameron Chatman do have to step up, or there will be too many ways to exploit this team, especially when they face larger opponents.
John Beilein still coaches this team, though. In-season improvement isn't just the hope, it's the established expectation, and one only has to think back to the Charlotte game last season for perspective; every basketball team is going to have their share of ugly outings, and Michigan just beat a team with a pulse by nine in such a game.
Another helpful tack. Take a look at the recent scores of the upcoming marquee opponents on Michigan's schedule.
- Oregon, Michigan's opponent next Monday, went into halftime tied at home against this same Detroit team four days ago. They pulled away and won by 17; if the Titans had decided to start fouling at a reasonable time last night, Michigan's final margin might've been very similar.
- Villanova, the most likely opponent if Michigan advances to the final of the Legends Classic (it'll be 'Nova or VCU), nearly lost to Bucknell—the squad M whomped by 24 points—at home last night, needing a late run to win by a misleading seven points after the Bison took a 65-63 lead with 1:51 remaining. 'Nova also had a six-point second-half deficit against #237 Lehigh in their season opener before pulling away.
- VCU, for their part, had a lot of trouble at home against #113 Toledo on Tuesday. The Rockets held a four-point lead midway through the second half and were as close as one point back with three minutes to play before VCU's press forced a few critical turnovers to close it out.
- Syracuse played Cal in Madison Square Garden last night, a neutral-site game that essentially functioned as a home game. The Bears entered the evening as KenPom's #63-ranked squad. Cal won by 14.
- SMU is now 1-2 thanks to a tough schedule and some ugly play; after losing by 16 at Gonzaga on Monday, they committed 19 turnovers on their way to losing by six at Indiana last night, coughing up a 12-point first-half lead in the process.
So let's not freak out just yet.
Derrick Walton! I think this is something that often comes through better in person than on TV, but Walton's court vision in transition is something to behold. It's tough to run a 3-on-2 break better than this:
The move to initiate the break is slick, but the real moment of excellence here is the little dive into the lane just before the pass; even though Max Bielfeldt's spacing here isn't ideal, Walton forces the two Detroit defenders to collapse into the paint, and in doing so he also shortens the pass to Irvin. Walton could've easily stayed wide to the left and tried a cross-court pass to Irvin, but that would've given the far-side defender time to get out and contest the shot. Instead, he hits Irvin in rhythm, and Detroit can only contest the shot late, which is doom against Irvin.
Walton and Caris LeVert are both rebounding very well—both, in fact, have top-200 defensive rebound rates at this very early juncture—and that's allowing Michigan to get out in transition, where they're absolutely lethal.
A quiet 21-9-3. LeVert's final stat line looked darn impressive despite a very uneven performance. I'd still like to see him finish more of his drives at the rim instead of settling for pull-up jumpers, but he managed to knock down a couple of those shots last night, and at some point you just shrug and let the NBA prospect take NBA shots; LeVert's 46% shooting mark inside the arc matches his percentage from last season, and that's while shouldering a bigger offensive load without Nik Stauskas around to stretch defenses thin.
Meanwhile, LeVert's got a 25.6% assist rate against just a 11.1% turnover rate, his defensive rebound rate ranks 83rd(!) nationally, and he's been very active on defense. When his outside shot starts falling, and it will, he's going to post some absurd stat lines.
The go-to lineup. This is where those lingering concerns come to the forefront. Michigan's best lineup for the past couple games has been Albrecht-Walton-LeVert-Irvin-Bielfeldt, and I don't think that's going to hold up in the long run—the lineup has its considerable upsides but also some major shortcomings.
The positives: Spike Albrecht has been fantastic thus far this year at generating offense for others, and he found his shot last night, too. With him out there, Walton can crash the defensive boards a little more—and subsequently get M out on the break in a hurry—and spot up for those killer corner threes on the other end. This is also Michigan's most experienced lineup, so their halfcourt offense runs smoothly; these guys know where to be, which isn't the case at the moment with the freshmen.
The negatives: Michigan hasn't faced a big, strong-rebounding team yet, and I'm skeptical of how well this lineup will hold up in that regard once they do. That would be a huge problem, as this lineup would have to continue rebounding at a phenomenal rate to make up for the fact that there's zero rim protection with Bielfeldt at the five and Irvin at the four. Detroit had a few disturbingly easy layups against this group when they were able to get past a perimeter defender; once that happened, they didn't face any resistance.
I think this is a stopgap while the freshmen figure it out, and nothing more than a situational lineup against better teams. Detroit didn't have the size or post skill to attack them at their weakest point; that won't be the case in a week, and definitely not in Big Ten season.
Beilein has been visibly frustrated with his freshmen. [Fuller]
Withholding judgment. Kameron Chatman is struggling out there. DJ Wilson has no clue where he's supposed to be on the court. Mark Donnal blew a layup last night. Ricky Doyle put up a two trillion. John Beilein is unhappy with their development, and it's not hard to see why.
Here's where I scream IT'S THREE GAMES INTO THEIR FRESHMAN SEASONS. Chatman has played the most out of any of these guys, a whole 60 minutes across three games. There are people drawing big-picture conclusions about him and the others from seeing them play basketball for an hour or less. One. Hour. These guys get more burn in a single practice than they have so far this season.
TOTALLY RANDOM ASIDE: In Trey Burke's first official game, against Ferris State, he shot 1/7 from the field with a 0:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Chatman's offensive woes have been disconcerting, sure, but he's also missing shots that are going to start falling; he's 1/5 at the rim this season. His field goal misses from the free-throw area have often come off awkward drives; when he had the chance to catch-and-shoot last night, he stroked an 18-footer from the right elbow, a shot that very much looks repeatable. He's shown flashes of being a very good passer. His rebounding rates are passable and should only improve.
Chatman has a ways to go on defense, but he's already advanced in his ability to disrupt passing lanes. Looking at what guys like D'Angelo Russell and James Blackmon Jr. are doing as true freshmen—in less complicated offenses, with entirely different roles—isn't fair to the kid, and a slow start doesn't mean he won't flourish as early as this season.
The bigs have barely played enough to even have a half-baked opinion, let alone a fully-formed one. Just because Beilein finally has the luxury to put a senior, however limited in terms of size and athleticism, out there to show them how it's done doesn't mean Donnal/Doyle/Wilson won't be critical parts of the rotation going forward.
— Sactown Royalty (@sactownroyalty) November 21, 2014
It's gonna be okay, everyone.
Derrick Walton led M's late charge with great transition play. [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]
They should've known.
Detroit hung with Michigan for most of a rather ugly game, thanks to the hot hand of Juwan Howard Jr. (24 points) and the cold first-half shooting of Michigan. With just 5:38 to play, the upset watch remained in effect with the game tied at 52.
Then Detroit slapped the floor.
Michigan put the game away with an 11-0 run.
If you're confused about the correlation, ask a State fan.
The Wolverines couldn't buy a bucket in the first half, going 10/29 from the field, including an uncharacteristic 3/12 mark from beyond the arc. Neither team looked very good, nor did the officials, who couldn't decide whether to call the game tight or let everything go. The Titans scored on the half's final possession to take a 28-27 lead into the locker room.
The second half didn't begin so well, either, as Detroit extended their lead to four points during a rough stretch for Michigan freshman Kameron Chatman. John Beilein wasted little time going to what would be his best lineup of the night, lifting Chatman for Spike Albrecht and inserting Max Bielfeldt at center. Both provided the support Michigan's three backcourt stars needed; Albrecht dished out four assists, knocked down two threes, and added a steal, while Bielfeldt hauled in five boards and even dished out a couple assists himself.
That allowed the big three to flourish. After a rough first half, Caris LeVert went on a tear in the second stanza, scoring 17 of his team-high 21 points in the final 20 minutes; he also pulled down nine rebounds to nearly tally a double-double. Zak Irvin became the main beneficiary of Walton's fast break exploits, knocking down a couple second-half transition threes on his way to 18 points. Walton finished with 16 points of his own, grabbed three rebounds, and handed out three assists.
Outside of Howard, who needed 24 shot equivalents to score his 24 points, and an usually efficient Brandon Kearney (14 points on 5/6 FG), nobody on Detroit could get much going offensively; Michigan kept the Titans almost entirely off the offensive glass and forced most of their shots to originate from the perimeter, and eventually the Titans flat-lined, going through long stretches of the second half without being able to score.
Michigan managed to weather a bad shooting night to eventually come away with the win, but concerns are mounting as the three stars have been forced to bear what could be an impossible load to carry long-term. The Irvin/LeVert/Walton troika scored over 77% of the team's points tonight, and the freshmen expected to fill major roles either looked lost on the court (Chatman, DJ Wilson) or were disturbingly absent from the rotation as the game wore on (Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle).
That's to be expected, in part, on such a young team with such obvious go-to players, but when the competition steps up significantly on Monday—when Michigan faces an Oregon team in Brooklyn that beat these same Titans by 18 earlier this week—the lack of secondary options is going to become a serious problem.
For now, Michigan's survived unscathed, and there are encouraging signs—one of those, somewhat surprisingly, on defense, where they've owned the boards. Sometime soon, though, this team is going to need one or two of their freshmen to grow up in a hurry.
11/17/2014 – Michigan 77, Bucknell 53 – 2-0
then he served Bucknell pancakes [Eric Upchurch]
That was rather impressive. The Bison are not a SWAC pushover. Historically they're one of the best teams in the Patriot League, and while they fell off a bit last year they were still good enough to put scares into Stanford and St. John's and beat Penn State by ten.
Michigan blew 'em off the court, opening up a 48-19 halftime lead and coasting from there.
We never think of the Kenpom. Speaking of the coasting: it got sloppy in the second half, with Michigan settling for a ton of long twos off the dribble with 25 seconds on the shot clock. These went clang, as dictated by Karma, and the blistering hot start petered out into a less than blistering 1.15 points per possession.
Broken record time: I don't mind open jumpers taken in rhythm, especially after you've gotten past a guy on a closeout and know you've got space to elevate without being harassed. I really do not like low-efficiency long twos that come without exploring your possession for better shots. There's a reason you can get those whenever you want. It's hard to yell at guys when you're hammering the opposition, but hopefully that's one of them coaching points that can be deployed.
THE CALVES THAT ATE THE AMERICAN WEST. So… remember that time someone asked why Max Bielfeldt keeps taking threes and Beilein responded that he was an assassin in practice? I guess that's accurate. On a night where one of the Big Three was struggling with his shot and Michigan got little production out of the four spot, Bielfeldt laid waste to the Bison. He hit all three of his attempts behind the arc and scoring 18 on 10 shot equivalents. Max was a one-man Manifest Destiny out there.
Does this mean something going forward? Maybe. Bielfeldt is still way undersized for the 5 spot in the Big Ten, and in this game there were a couple of post buckets by the spectacularly-named Nana Fouland that Bielfeldt could barely contest.
But maybe the four would work? If Bielfeldt is a credible threat in the corner and the matchup doesn't seriously expose him defensively that could be an option, Kenny Kaminski style. Bielfeldt is a decent matchup against Brandon Dawson types who aren't going to blaze by him to the basket, and Michigan's not getting much production out of that spot.
I still don't think you can build a Big Ten defense around a 6'7" post.
[After THE JUMP: rebounding strategy, HULK SMASH, Irvin "not bad" face.]
Previously: Gardening Lessons
While the rest of the roster deals with a good amount of turnover, point guard is a comforting constant for Michigan this season thanks to the return of starter Derrick Walton and invaluable backup Spike Albrecht.
Although both point guards return, their roles—especially Walton's—should be quite different with the departure of Nik Stauskas, who ran the show on offense for much of 2013-14. Caris LeVert will continue to handle the ball quite a bit himself, but Walton will either be the second or third option when he's on the court, and with Stauskas gone Albrecht's shooting off the bench becomes more valuable, as well.
These two will also be asked to provide much of the leadership for this young squad. A true junior who recently turned all of 22 years old, Spike is the oldest player on this team—I KNOW, RIGHT?—and John Beilein has discussed his importance as a leader several times this offseason, including at today's Big Ten Media Day:
Q. I was wondering if you could talk about Spike and how you've seen him develop since he got on campus, particularly from last season to this season?
JOHN BEILEIN: It's amazing the confidence he has shown since the day he walked in the door. I mean, even when he came for his visit where he was what some people thought was an unlikely recruit, he was laughing about how unlikely people thought this was. And then every time he walks on the floor, he just -- he's got incredible confidence that "I can play at this level," and he's shown that so well. He's a pleasure to coach. He's become a really excellent team leader right now. I'm really leaning on him to be the pulse of the team.
Spike is the pulse, Walton the burgeoning floor general. Hit the jump for a deeper dive into what to expect from them this season.