Michigan gets creative to simulate Syracuse’s zone as semifinal looms

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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 4, 2013

ATLANTA — The last home practice for the 2012-13 Michigan men’s basketball team didn’t look normal.

Sure, the mood was loose Tuesday, with players nodding their heads to the piped-in music playing overhead during a post-practice dunk contest, but there were some oddities.

Mainly the fact that 6-foot-10 senior forward Blake McLimans, a reserve, was the scout team’s player tasked with simulating the top of Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone. Syracuse has such length that the Wolverines were forced to use one of their tallest players to simulate Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who is 6-foot-6.

On top of that, Michigan coach John Beilein implemented a new drill for his perimeter players. A whistle sounded during offensive run throughs, and whichever Wolverine had the ball had to jack up a shot, even if they were three to four feet behind the 3-point line.

Twenty-eight-foot shots and centers playing the top of a zone — that’s the type of practice required to master the Orange’s defense.

For much of the week, much attention has been paid to this zone, put in place by legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, and how Beilein would attack it. The two are friends and have roots back to when Beilein coached at Canisius in the 1990s.

Beilein’s offense is, and always has been, built around players who can shoot. He’s never beat Boeheim in nine attempts, but he’s also never had quite the repertoire of shooters that he does now.

Is that a big deal?

“We are going to try and make it a big deal,” said sophomore point guard Trey Burke, the straw that stirs the drink for the Michigan offense. “We understand that they are really long and successful in that zone. My job is to make sure we are moving the ball, not just standing around but making them move and try and hit the open man.”

As he has been for the entire season, Burke will be at the forefront of the offensive attack. Even though Carter-Williams has six inches on the recently crowned Associated Press Player of the Year, Burke will still be asked to penetrate the impenetrable to keep Michigan’s offense fluid.

Burke’s drives set up Michigan’s shooters, specifically freshman guard Nik Stauskas, who made all six of his 3-point attempts against Florida in the Elite Eight last weekend. The consensus is that if Michigan can shoot like it did against the Gators, when it made 46 percent of its shots from the field, the Wolverines can advance to the championship game.

Playing Syracuse this Saturday instead of last Sunday makes a big difference, though. Beilein and the Wolverines have six days to prepare for the zone, instead of the two that they had to prepare against Florida.

For a young team, that could make all the difference.

“Before, we got like 36 hours to cram in all this information,” Stauskas said. “Sometimes, when you’re sitting in film for a couple hours, all the information doesn’t really sink in just because it’s so much at once. Dividing it up over five or six days makes it a lot easier to take in.”

This is a team that’s finding its stride at just the perfect time after a mid-season swoon during which the Wolverines lost three of four games at one point and finished 6-6 in their last 12 games.

It turns out the answers were never too far out of reach for the seniors who had their last-ever practice at Crisler Center on Tuesday. The team had to slow down and regroup, needing a slight infusion of confidence to catapult it back to a place commensurate with its talent level.

Now, after weathering the storm and becoming one of the last four teams standing, Michigan has found its stride, even if that stride involved a 6-foot-10 reserve acting as the opposing team’s point guard.

“I never though we were in trouble,” said senior guard Corey Person. “The thing that I saw, that always kept me in high spirits, was that in a lot of the games we were losing, the mistakes that we were making were a lot of the same mistakes. It wasn’t something big, like we needed someone to grow three inches, or that we needed to be able to make 50 3-pointers a game. Everything we were doing were small mistakes that you can fix in a weeks or couple days time.

“I was always confident, and I was just waiting to see when we were going to be able to flip that switch.”