All week long, the only two numbers anyone has wanted to talk about in the lead-in to the Michigan men’s basketball team’s semifinal game with Syracuse are two and three.
Two and three, or more aptly, 2-3 — referencing the Orange’s vaunted zone defense — may be the key to slowing down the Wolverines’ high-scoring offensive attack. That’s why the only numbers Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander wanted to talk about were four and six.
“It’s critically important to catch them when they’re at their most unorganized point, and it’s usually in the first four-to-six seconds of a shot clock,” Alexander said.
“You want to execute in those instances where there’s not a strong, organized defense.”
While it remains to be seen whether the Wolverines will actually be able to crack the 2-3 zone — something they struggled with at times against Florida last weekend — several Michigan players reiterated that easiest way to break the zone is to avoid it entirely.
That, of course, starts with forcing bad shots and getting clean rebounds on the other end. If Michigan gets those stops and starts running, the team is almost impossible to beat. In four NCAA Tournament games, the Wolverines are outscoring opponents, 54-27, in transition.
“It’s crucial for us to be able to get rebounds and get quick outlets, or when other people get rebounds, make sure we’re up the floor in four seconds or less,” said redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford of the post players’ responsibilities. “Transition is one of the best parts of our games. When our transition game is going, we’ve had great success.
“When you have skill players like (we have), it makes the transition game easy.”
Horford will be a part of that big-man equation, but Michigan’s biggest variable will be freshman forward Mitch McGary. Since being inserted into the starting lineup at the tournament’s onset, McGary has put up monstrous numbers on both ends of the floor, averaging team highs in points per game (17.5), rebounds per game (11.5) and steals per game (2.75).
But one statistic that’s conspicuously low is the freshman’s assist total for the tournament. McGary has assisted on just two baskets, but that figure is deceiving — his quick, long outlet passes have spurred a large percentage of Michigan’s fast-break points.
“I think if we get clean rebounds, then we should have easy transition runs,” McGary said. “I told Tim and Trey and Nik and Glenn that whoever gets the rebound, just start running and I’m going to look for you guys.”
But while McGary came to college with above-average vision and passing abilities, his body was sometimes too quick for his mind, leading to errant passes and costly turnovers. In the Michigan State game earlier in the season — McGary’s first career start — the forward had four turnovers that each turned into Spartan baskets.
Michigan coach John Beilein pointed to that game as a turning point in McGary’s ability to slow his game down while not losing his knack for sparking the Wolverines’ up-tempo offense.
Alexander — whose main coaching responsibility is the frontcourt — referenced legendary former UCLA coach John Wooden’s famous quote to describe McGary’s progression: “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
“You’re seeing a much more under control Mitch McGary,” Alexander said. “The pace of play that happens once you’ve seen film, once you’ve had game reps, practice reps and now you can play the game from slow to fast because now you can understand the reads and the reacts. Mitch originally was a highly reactionary player, so he was playing the game a bit too fast. Since then, he’s really slowed down quite nicely.”
McGary happens to be ambidextrous — he throws primarily righty, but does many things, including shoot, left-handed — giving him a significant advantage for instantaneously starting a fast break.
“It’s weird, but … I can throw both ways, so whatever way I catch the rebound I’m going to throw it two hands, one hand, whatever hand,” McGary said.
His pinpoint accuracy and high-velocity passes date back to time in Chesterton, Ind., where he excelled on the court and, also, the baseball diamond.
“Back in the day I used to just baseball-pass it down the court,” McGary said of his middle school days. “We kind of cherry-picked it here and there — it’s always fun in games — but you know, I’ve always just tried to do what’s best for the team, get them out and running and I know teams are harder to stop when they’re in transition.”
And if Saturday’s game provides McGary a chance to flash his arm strength, there’s a good chance Michigan will knock Syracuse right out of the park.