A week ago, I was trying to wrap my brain around how Syracuse would contain Indiana’s potent offense (the country’s number 2 ranked adjusted offense, according to Ken Pomeroy). Indiana boasted guards and forwards all capable of knocking down outside shots and one of the country’s best low post players, but Syracuse held them to a season low 50 points, on 20% shooting from three and 33.3% overall from the floor. On Saturday, the Orange will face a surprisingly similar challenge from Michigan (Ken Pomeroy’s number one ranked adjusted offense).
Michigan’s starting lineup of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, and Mitch McGary, the lineup that figures to see the bulk of minutes against Syracuse, reminds me a lot of Indiana’s preferred lineup (of Ferrell OR Hulls, Oladipo, Sheehey, Watford, and Zeller). Zeller and McGary are both dominant inside scorers, who aren’t great rim protectors; while Zeller may have a more polished game, McGary strikes me as a tougher player. Watford and Stauskas are both great shooters, who can’t do much else, especially on defense. Sheehey isn’t nearly as talented or athletic as Glenn Robinson III, but both guys are capable shooters, who can play inside or out. Tim Hardaway Jr is as athletic as Oladipo, but not nearly as good of a defender, nor as consistent of a player. The one major difference is point guard play, where Burke is arguably the best in the country and a significant upgrade from Hulls or Ferrell on both sides of the ball, especially on defense.
The numbers (national rank in parenthesis) seem to back up the similarities between the two teams:
|Effective FG%||54.8 (9)||54.6 (11)|
|Effective FG% Defense||44 (17)||48 (144)|
|3-point %||40.3 (4)||38.5 (17)|
|Points per possession||1.16 (2)||1.16 (2)|
|Rebound%||53.9 (21)||51.8 (97)|
|Block%||6.2 (168)||4.9 (250)|
|Steal%||10.5 (128)||9.6 (201)|
|Turnover%||19.2 (214)||14.4 (346)|
|Turnovers per game||13 (188)||9.4 (345)|
Michigan and Indiana are two of the best offensive teams in the country, both in terms of shooting percentage and points per possession. Neither team is great nor terrible on the glass (although Indiana is better than Michigan). By the numbers, Indiana is actually significantly better on defense than Michigan, both in terms of how teams shoot against them and the percentage of shots they block and turnovers they create. The one major difference is turnover percentage. At a miserly 14.4%, Michigan is one of the best teams in the country at taking care of the ball. Whether or not Syracuse, which boasts a 13.8 steal percentage (eighth nationally), is able to turn Michigan over will be one of the keys to the game.
Additionally, like they did against Indiana, the Orange must take advantage of whatever favorable match-ups they have on offense. Stauskas will be forced to guard either James Southerland or CJ Fair. If he’s on the latter, Syracuse will likely run much of its offense through Fair and if he’s on the former, Syracuse needs to run James off a variety of screens to get him open looks from the perimeter. It’s unclear whether or not Burke, who is a superior defender to Hardaway Jr but six inches shorter, will be guarding Michael Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche, but whichever Syracuse guard has Hardaway Jr on them has to be able to beat him off the dribble and get into the lane to either score or set up his teammates.
Simply put, Trey Burke aside, no one on Michigan is a consistently good defender (Hardaway Jr has potential but is prone to taking plays off, same with Robinson III), so Syracuse has to score in order to win this game. There’s an old adage that defense leads to offense and for many previous Syracuse teams (including last year’s edition which was perhaps the best transition team in the country) that was true, but on this year’s squad, offense leads to defense. Not only are the players noticeably more active when they’re making shots, but more importantly, by scoring, Syracuse is able to get back on defense and prevent transition and semi-transition opportunities for their opponent. When they miss or turn the ball over and their opposition is able to get a shot off before the zone gets set, Syracuse’s greatest strength is negated.
On defense, Syracuse’s zone will do what it always does and try to wreak havoc, but if Michigan is smart, they’ll attack it differently than Indiana did. The Hoosiers spent most of the game putting Zeller in the high post, where he was largely unable to knock down the midrange jumper or drive, and when he dumped it off to cutting forwards, they were swarmed by the taller Syracuse wings. So the biggest X-factor in the game (not named Brandon Triche), will be how Robinson III is utilized and how he plays. If he’s the guy flashing to the high post, he’s a good enough shooter that the Syracuse bigs will have to step out on him, which should allow McGary to exploit his size down low. If Syracuse can contain this high-low play, while still managing to stay connected to Stauskas and Burke on the perimeter, then Michigan is going to struggle to score in half-court sets, just like Indiana did.
I don’t have any idea how this game will unfold. It’s certainly possible that this Michigan team, a team that plays more NBA-caliber players than any Syracuse has faced this season, will overpower the Orange zone, but that’s far from an inevitability. And Syracuse has one advantage that Michigan doesn’t have: the Orange played a team very similar to Michigan last week (and won), but Michigan has never seen anything like Syracuse’s zone.