With a thrilling tournament run behind them, the Michigan Wolverines have made it back to their first Final Four since 1993. This one’s in Atlanta, and the opponent should look quite familiar to John Beilein. His mentor Jim Boehiem arrives, bringing his Syracuse Orange’s tough defense and unheralded offense along with him.
Certainly, regardless of the game plan or result, seeing the Wolverines back in the Final Four is reason enough for fans to celebrate. Despite that, another combined effort from Wolverine Walkthrough is here to provide you some the keys to the game and make a few predictions.
(Chris) How Michigan Wins: Make shots.
This is pretty self-explanatory and obvious, but it’s doubly important against this vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone — which has been hyped even more this week than VCU’s HAVOC defense in Round 3, if that’s possible. But the way to beat a zone, any zone, is to take advantage of the openings.
For the 2-3 as Syracuse runs it, those chances should come at the foul line and in the corners. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III could find openings in the middle, while Nik Stauskas clearly has shown that he’s lethal from the wings. If Michigan can find a little confidence against the zone early, it will shift the pressure to Syracuse. That VCU defense never adjusted when Michigan shredded it; can Syracuse respond if the Wolverines come out scorching?
(Max) How Syracuse Wins: Turn Michigan over.
It’s a task easier said than done, given the Wolverines were the hardest team in the nation to turn over in 2012 with only 9.4 a game. Syracuse forces 15 turnovers a game which ranked 36th in the nation, and provides this match up an interesting added dimension and perhaps the singular dynamic to watch. Michigan handled VCU’s tough press with ease and survived decent defensive teams in Kansas and Florida last weekend. In order to win, the Orange will need to hope the Wolverines are overwhelmed by the moment and throw the ball around more than they usually do. If that happens, this game could be decided relatively fast.
Michigan’s Player To Watch: Glenn Robinson III.
You have to figure that Trey Burke and Hardaway will get shots, one way or another. And Stauskas should get some looks, too. But Robinson does not always work his way into the flow of things for the Michigan offense — and some of the Maize and Blue’s worst games have come when Robinson has been a non-factor on offense. He can shoot from the outside, but that’s not his game. Where he may cash in big on Saturday night is at the rim, both by catching and attacking from the zone gaps and by crashing the boards.
Syracuse’s Player To Watch: Michael Carter-Williams.
If there’s one player who can shut down either Burke or Hardaway Jr. based on sheer length alone, it’s the physical Carter-Williams, who has stepped up in this tournament. He’s playing aggressive defense, and has already played a role in locking down some of the finer guards he’s seen in Allen Crabbe, Victor Oladipo and Vander Blue. Offensively, Carter-Williams has shown impressive mettle, contributing a remarkable 52 points in four games. If he gets loose on both ends of the floor again, Michigan will need big efforts our of their guards to keep up. It will be imperative that the Wolverines deal well with him.
Most Important “Michigan” Math: Turnovers. Syracuse can get out and run, but the Orange have been much more effective late in the year by shortening games and grinding the clock. So, Michigan has to be efficient in how it operates. Because of the length Syracuse’s players possess, Michigan must be aware of hands and arms in passing lanes — those drive-and-dish opportunities that Burke loves to create could be tough to come by here.
“Orange Alert” Stat: 29 percent, the frigid shooting percentage of Syracuse opponents throughout the tournament, courtesy of the ravaging zone defense we mentioned. Orange opponents are also shooting an ugly 15 percent from three point land, numbers which will likely pain many a Wolverine eye. In order to beat an excellent shooting Michigan team, the Orange must do what they’ve been doing: stepping up on shooters while denying the post. They must also trap and frustrate Michigan’s guards into bad descisions by using their impressive length to their advantage. If the Wolverines cannot shoot above 40 percent and knock down their open shots, chances are their magical run will be coming to an end fast, much like fellow Big Ten compadre Indiana’s did when facing the defensive-minded Orange.
Michigan’s Intangible: Offensive rebounding.
Syracuse lost nine games prior to the NCAA Tournament. In all but one they allowed at least 10 offensive rebounds. People generally don’t think of Michigan as a glass-crashing bunch (and Syracuse may generate some second chances of its own), but with Mitch McGary, Robinson, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, there are more than enough athletes down low to give Syracuse fits should the Wolverines’ outside shots not fall. McGary, especially, has been a load this tournament season, and he will aggressively get to the rim on Saturday night, probably even more so given that the 2-3 zone could limit his touches.
Syracuse’s Intangible: Michigan’s lack of championship week experience.
Boeheim has seen plenty of Final Four battles in his time, while Beilein has not. The Wolverines are still relatively young and have not seen anything like the Super Bowl-like pomp and circumstance of FInal Four week. Will coaching and experience play a role in this department? It’s a dynamic worth watching for both Michigan and Wichita State, the two most inexperienced teams in Atlanta.
Chris’s Prediction: What we haven’t really talked about yet is Michigan’s ability to stop Syracuse. Honestly, I think that will be the key — Michigan, with numerous outside shooters and an increasingly confident front court, should find a way to score points Saturday. At the very least the Wolverines ought to be more successful on that front that Indiana or Marquette were in losses to the Orange. But can the Wolverines clean up the defensive boards? Can they keep Carter-Williams from consistently penetrating the lane? If not, Syracuse might roll. My guess is that this goes down to the wire. And that the Wolverines have just enough to keep this run alive. Michigan 68, Syracuse 66
Max’s Prediction: The college basketball realist and skeptic would tell you that Michigan got lucky to make it past Kansas thanks to shaky coaching and a miracle three point shot. Regardless, they made the most of that opportunity and have advanced to the Final Four. They haven’t seen a team like Syracuse, though, with length and ferocious defense. The closest league comparisons are Michigan State and Ohio State, and the Wolverines were only 2-2 against both those clubs. Syracuse frustrates Michigan with the zone, and shows enough offensive pluck to make their way into Monday’s title game. Syracuse 64, Michigan 57
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax