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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.