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By Colleen Thomas, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 4, 2013
It’s the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and the Michigan men’s basketball team is still playing.
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After breezing through the opening weekend, then upsetting top-seeded Kansas and demolishing Florida en route to their first Final Four in 20 years, the Wolverines will take on Syracuse in Saturday’s national semifinal.
The Daily basketball beat breaks down the matchup.
Michigan offense vs. Syracuse defense
It’s the matchup everybody’s been waiting to see: How will the Wolverines’ fast-paced, Trey Burke-focused offense handle the daunting 2-3 zone that held Marquette to a tournament-low 39 points and Indiana to 50 points.
Syracuse’s long, athletic players fit perfectly into coach Jim Boeheim’s defensive scheme with their ability to close out on shooters quickly and cause turnovers — the Orange causes 15.6 turnovers per game.
Syracuse also does a great job shutting down shooters. It rendered Indiana’s Jordan Hulls and Marquette’s Vander Blue ineffective from the field (Hulls went 0-for-6 and Blue went 3-for-15) and will look to do the same with freshman guard Nik Stauskas and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr.
But Michigan is prepared to mold its offense around the zone. The Wolverines have worked on shooting from well beyond the 3-point line to avoid blocks on closeouts by the lanky guards, and the forwards have practiced high-low sets to try to find space in the low post.
Michigan likes to run a pick-and-roll offense that gives Burke the ability to drive off the screen, dump it in the post or kick out to a shooter. The zone will most likely neutralize the drive, but Michigan can break down the Orange defense with good ball rotation and ball fakes.
If Michigan can get out in transition to prevent Syracuse from setting up its zone or if it can find a hot shooting hand, the Wolverines can overcome the zone.
Michigan defense vs. Syracuse offense
Michigan has struggled to play 40 minutes of good defense all season, but it seems to have found some sort of rhythm in the tournament.
Entering the tournament, one of the biggest questions was whether freshman forward Mitch McGary would be able to play defense after earning the starting spot over redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan.
Luckily for the Wolverines, McGary stepped up in the tournament both by playing tough defense in the paint and by limiting opponents to one-and-done possessions. McGary shut down Kansas’ Jeff Withey in the Sweet Sixteen matchup, and the backcourt of Burke and Hardaway has been solid.
But Michigan hasn’t seen a set of guards like Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Carter-Williams has been the story of the tournament for the Orange on both sides of the ball.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13 points per game in the tournament. Carter-Williams is six inches taller than Burke, which will be a matchup issue, but if Hardaway guards Carter-Williams, Burke is tasked with guarding the 6-foot-4 Triche.
The Wolverines saw a similarly built team in Virginia Commonwealth in the third round and ended up blowing the Rams out, but Syracuse’s guards are simply more talented and athletic. Michigan will not only have a tough task guarding Carter-Williams, but playing a full 40 minutes of good defense.
For the majority of the tournament, Syracuse has used an eight-man rotation, but center Baye Moussa Keita is the only bench player to see significant minutes, as he shares time with forward Rakeem Christmas.
The Orange will always have a fresh big man in the game with Keita and Christmas splitting minutes, but foul trouble could be an issue for the two. And if Syracuse brings another guard off the bench, it doesn’t have the talent to replace Carter-Williams and Triche. Yet the duo is used to playing a majority of the game, so fatigue might not be an issue.
Michigan’s guards are also used to playing extended minutes, but the Wolverines have a deep bench in case of foul trouble or exhaustion. Freshman guard Spike Albrecht has surprised many with his solid play as Burke’s backup and has even been used in a two-point-guard set against certain defenses. Michigan also uses freshman guard Caris LeVert to rotate with Hardaway or Stauskas.
Two — or three, if needed — Michigan forwards can come in to give McGary a breather. Morgan was the starter for most of the season and is one of Michigan’s best defenders, and redshirt sophomore Jon Horford’s long frame is good for a zone defense. Redshirt freshman Max Bielfeldt is the third option.
John Beilein is 0-9 all-time against Jim Boeheim, but Beilein never had the talented roster he does now.
At West Virginia, Beilein molded his players to fit his system, and though he saw some tournament success, Beilein never reached a Final Four.
Now, Beilein’s roster is filled with potential NBA talent in Burke, Hardaway Jr. and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III, and he’s made his deepest tournament run by allowing his players to create for themselves, instead of molding them to his system.
But where Beilein has the ability to coach the talent, Boeheim has years of tournament experience.
Though Boeheim hasn’t brought Syracuse to a Final Four in 10 years, the Orange won the National Championship in that trip in 2003. Boeheim has taken his teams to 30 tournament appearances and is 46-23 during March Madness.
Michigan is riding a wave of momentum from its overtime thriller against Kansas and the 20-point drubbing of Florida.
The tournament run marks a resurgence for Michigan basketball. It’s the first Final Four for the program since the Fab Five made it in 1993, and there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the team.
The Wolverines’ roster is filled with young players, with five freshmen regularly see playing time, and they’re all soaking in the experience of making a Final Four. But youth has also been an issue for Michigan, especially in the Big Ten, and the Wolverines are the youngest team left in the tournament.
Syracuse is also a young team. Its system isn’t made for large momentum swings, as the Orange had to grind out low-scoring wins over Indiana and Marquette.
FINAL SCORE: Michigan 68, Syracuse 56