It will be a battle of four seeds in one half of the Final Four on Saturday when Michigan (30-7) takes on Syracuse (30-9). The two squads have reached this point of the NCAA Tournament through clearly different paths. The Wolverines, who spent all season in the top ten until a late cold snap sent them down to #11 in the final poll before the NCAA Tournament, arrived at this point through a powerful offense, as they have rang up 78.8 points per game in their four tournament contests. That run includes victories over VCU, Kansas, and Florida, so there is no questioning Michigan’s credentials, particularly on the offensive end. The Orange have used a suffocating defense to reach this point, holding two opponents to under 40 points and permitting an average of 45.8 points per game in their run to the national semifinals. This includes holding the high-powered offense of the East Regional’s top seed Indiana to 50 points and Marquette’s third-seeded crew to a meager 39 points. Clearly, these are two teams whose matchup will drive people to the cliché inkwell to write about an irresistible force and an immovable object.
One thing that must get cleared up straight away, however, is the past performance of the two coaches in head-to-head matchups. Do not get caught up in the fact that Jim Boeheim’s record in head-to-head meetings with John Beilein is 9-0. One of those games came while Beilein was at Michigan, which encompasses the last six years of his long and esteemed career. Other than that, Boeheim has always been in the position of having a significant advantage in talent on his roster and he should have won those games.
The lone matchup with Beilein steering the Wolverines came in the 2010-2011 season, when they finished 21-14 on the season and earned an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament while that SU team, which finished 27-8 after earning a #3 seed, was ranked in the top ten at the time of that contest. It is safe to say that the talent was distributed in a split favoring the Orange.
There is also not a lot to take away from that matchup over two years ago. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was a freshman on that team and he and Jordan Morgan, who recently was replaced in the Wolverines’ starting lineup, are the only players on the Michigan roster who prominently figured in that game. Brandon Triche started that game for the Orange while C.J. Fair, Baye Moussa Keita, and James Southerland all appeared in reserve roles. As such, the previous meetings between the two coaches are meaningless for this game, especially because the few players who participated did not have a lot to do with the outcome and Michigan now has three excellent freshmen in their starting lineup.
When Michigan is in their half-court offense:
Just last week, Syracuse took on Indiana, who entered that game ranked second in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rankings. The number one team? Michigan. The Wolverines have also nudged past the Hoosiers and stand in second in the country in points per possession on the season (in part due to Indiana being stifled by Syracuse). Michigan profiles similarly to Indiana in multiple ways – strong overall shooting from the field (48.5 percent on the year), making a high percentage of three-pointers (38.5 percent on the campaign), and having multiple effective deep shooters (three players with 70 or more made triples on the season, another with over 20). Again, this will be a stiff test for the Orange defense, but in a different way.
Trey Burke, the All-American point guard, is on everyone’s short list for national player of the year. Burke does everything a coach could want from a point guard, including setting up teammates (6.8 assists per game), taking care of the ball (averaging a 3.12-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), and making his shots (18.8 points per game, shoots 46.4 percent from the floor, 80.8 from the stripe, and 38.1 percent on 3s). His penetration must be limited, so look for the Syracuse guards at the top of the zone to pinch the middle to keep him out of the key with the forwards cheating up to the 3-point line on the wings and the center isolated under the basket. Burke runs John Beliein’s motion offense very well and is flanked by three wings for the majority of the game, all of whom shoot the ball well. Tim Hardaway, Jr. has made 70 threes en route to running up 14.6 points per game, but trailed both Burke (72 triples) and Nik Stauskas (79) for team-high honors. Stauskas is the team’s elite 3-point threat, shooting just under 45 percent from the arc with over half his field goals on the season coming from deep. Glenn Robinson III is a little more of an inside player, having made 56.6 percent of his shots on the year, but can also knock down the deep shot, as shown by his 23 triples on the year. Mitch McGary has become the fifth starter of late and is a horse down low. He has logged 23 or more minutes in the last six games and started all four in the tournament, where he has averaged 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, including a 25-point, 14-rebound outing against Kansas and All-American-caliber center Jeff Withey. McGary has also been brutally efficient in those games, making 33-of-45 field goal attempts (73.3 percent).
Burke will be the ringleader of the offense, but their motion action allows touches all around. One of the more difficult decisions John Beilein will be faced with is who to play in the high post or if someone should be assigned there at all. Neither Robinson nor McGary is much of a passer and McGary is far better suited in a low-post role. The other three primary players are all perimeter shooters and two of the three (Burke and Hardaway Jr.) are strong slashers. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, Michigan deploys in the high post of a high-low post combination or if they just opt to use a four-out, one-in offense with cutters slicing through the middle to get action going to the bucket or open up post opportunities for McGary. Michigan also gets out in transition rather well. In addition to their 2-3 zone simply being active, it will be paramount for the Orange to focus on beating the Wolverines down court and make them probe in a half-court set instead of getting quick scores.
SU also needs to take care of their backboard responsibilities. McGary is a very strong offensive rebounder, having grabbed 3.7 offensive rebounds per game in his last six outings, so the Orange need to be aware of him at all times. Christmas and Keita will likely need help from their teammates to secure rebounds. The Orange on the season have collected 65.6 percent of all rebounds on the defensive end while the Wolverines have grabbed only 32.7 percent of all available offensive rebounds. If SU can contain McGary, they should be able to protect their backboard and limit Michigan to one shot per trip.
When Syracuse is in their half-court offense:
Michigan is a good, but not great, defensive team that will likely play large amounts of man-to-man defense. Syracuse will have multiple positions with a height advantage – one of the guard spots and both forward spots. Trey Burke, while being a solid defender, is only 6’0”, so he will give up several inches to either Michael Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche. Burke’s quickness should lead to him to spending some time guarding Carter-Williams, as shorter, quicker guards, such as those from Louisville and Connecticut, have given the SU point man issues at times this year. Much like in the Indiana game, Boeheim could opt to invert the offense to try to exploit the height advantage enjoyed by whichever guard is defended by Burke in post-up opportunities to try to get easy scores and perhaps put a foul or two on the All-American. Both of the Syracuse forwards, C.J. Fair and James Southerland, will have a couple inches on their counterparts, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas. Robinson III is the better of the two athletes and will likely check Fair to try to limit his effectiveness in driving and posting up, while Stauskas will spend his time in man-to-man alignments chasing Southerland.
While Michigan will likely play man-to-man for large portions of the game, they also have a handful of zone options at their disposal, including the 1-3-1, and will likely change defenses if they need to find an alignment to slow down the Orange. The 1-3-1 zone is used to forced to funnel the ball along the sidelines and parallel to the backboard about 30 feet away from the basket, as well as to trap when the opportunity presents itself near the sidelines. SU’s lack of a true low-post threat (Fair tends to catch the ball off the block, then back down and drive to the hole) and Beilein’s mastery of the 1-3-1 will likely lead to the Wolverines using it before any other zone defenses. When faced with this defense, the Orange must use penetration and quick passing to avoid traps and get the zone moving to open holes, particularly in the corners. This feeds into the SU forwards getting open looks from three-point range, particularly with Southerland’s quick, high release getting off shots before a defender can recover to him, and Fair’s comfort with the corner three, particularly from the left side of the floor. Another facet of the Orange offense that will help against this defense is both guards’ comfort level with ballhandling. Carter-Williams has been running the point most of the year and Triche has done so the rest of the time, not to mention his history of running the offense as far back as starting every game his freshman year at the point. Both are capable of getting into the key for their own look and Carter-Williams is especially adept at setting up his mates for easy scores. Michigan also is not a team that blocks a lot of shots, so if the Orange guards are able to penetrate on a regular basis, it could end up a long day for the Wolverines.
Wolverine advantage: Ball control
Michigan is very protective of the ball, as they only turn it over on 14.4 percent of their possessions, the best mark in all of Division One. The Orange force turnovers on 23.6 percent of all opponent possessions on the season and have actually forced more turnovers (67) than permitted field goals (61) in their four tournament games. The Wolverines have given the ball up 42 times in their tournament run and turned it over ten or more times in barely more than half their games on the season.
The length of the Syracuse zone will need to cause live-ball turnovers and provide transition opportunities. Look for the forwards to collapse on McGary in the post. McGary is a physically strong player, but not a strong passer and is susceptible to coughing it up.
Orange advantage: Shooting two-point field goals
Michigan has defended the 3-point line well thus far in the tournament, but has been pretty poor inside the arc. Their four opponents have combined to make 52.6 percent of their shots inside the 3-point line and the worst performance by any of their foes is 45.7 percent on two-point attempts.
The Syracuse offense has not been particularly efficient in the NCAA Tournament other than their opener against Montana, where they simply outclassed the Grizzlies. Even with that one laugher, the Orange have shot only 45.6 percent inside the arc in those four games. With Michigan being more permissive inside, SU should find things a little easier going on offense.
Secret key player of the game: Syracuse’s starting forwards
With their respective height and length, both C.J. Fair and James Southerland will provide matchup issues to Michigan, regardless of their defensive choice. As a result, both C.J. Fair and James Southerland will likely have increased roles on offense. First of all, they will both see additional ballhandling responsibilities if the Wolverines use the 1-3-1 zone, including as the target of traps on the wings and near the baseline corners. They will need to be smart with the ball and know their next move before the pass comes to them to limit trapping opportunities for the Wolverines. When the guards are able to penetrate the zone, both forwards will get open looks at corner 3-point shots available on kick-out passes. Fair, who is shooting 47.5 percent on the season from 3-point range, will likely get his preferred left corner 3-pointer, while Southerland, who made 19 triples in the Big East Tournament, will probably have a much greener light than he has shown in the four NCAA Tournament games, where he has only attempted 19 deep balls. The two will also get chances to finish at the rim on drive-and-dish opportunities when the guards are able to penetrate past the first line of defense. When the backline defender steps up, Fair, in particular, should be looking to cut baseline to the basket and be ready for a dump-off for a dunk.
The Orange have made it this far based on their fantastic defensive effort. Michigan’s combination of a strong post player and a group of efficient 3-point shooters resembles the group that Indiana brought for their Sweet Sixteen game and Syracuse was able to shut down their proficient offense. While Burke’s driving ability and quickness provides a different dimension, look for the defense to collapse on him, just as they did to Victor Oladipo in that Indiana game, then recover. Based on that recent positive experience to draw upon, Syracuse should advance to the fourth national title game in the school’s history.