Final Four Preview: Michigan vs. Syracuse

It has been 20 years since Michigan last reached the Final Four. That is, of course, if you ignore vacated records since Michigan’s Fab Five had both their 1992 and 1993 Final Four appearances (and national title game appearances) wiped from the record books.
Regardless, this is an exciting time in the state of Michigan because, for the first time in more than 20 years both Michigan and Michigan State have elite teams. That said, this weekend isn’t about Michigan State – a team that had reached six Final Fours, seven Elite Eights and won a national championship since the last time Michigan reached the Sweet 16 (1994) and this season.
This is about how the nation’s last undefeated team back in January, survived a fall from the No. 1 ranking, endured a brutal 1-3 stretch against the Big Ten’s best, withstood heartbreak in the season finale that had a layup fallen the other way a Big Ten championship would have been in the rafters, and shook off a quarterfinal loss in the Big Ten Tournament to take a slap-in-the-face No. 4 seed and march to the 2013 Final Four.
Did it take some luck? Sure, but every March run has a dash of luck. Kansas had to collapse, including missing the front end of a 1-and-1 with 10 seconds to play and Trey Burke had to drain a 30-foot 3-pointer to send the game into overtime. As improbable as that was, it’s the kind of stuff March dreams are made of. If there was any doubt Michigan’s run was all luck th0se thoughts were cast away with an absolute 79-59 shellacking of Florida, the No. 1 team in the country via efficiency numbers for much of the year.
Now the Wolverines have a date with Syracuse – a team that no one outside the state of New York can possibly root for, starting with a smug, curmudgeon coach who refuses to play any sort of challenging  nonconference schedule and ending with an unpredictable-at-best style of play.
Michigan vs. Syracuse for a spot in the 2013 national title game. Let’s get it on!
Here’s a big breakdown of Saturday’s Final Four showdown in Atlanta (h/t to Kenpom):

Michigan (30-7) vs. Syracuse (30-9)
Line: Michigan -2.5
Kenpom Score: Michigan 67-66 (51%)
Kenpom ranking: Michigan 5th, Syracuse 7th
Offensive efficiency: Michigan 121.9 (1st), Syracuse 113.2 (21st)
Defensive efficiency: Michigan 91.9 (35th), Syracuse 85.8 (5th)
eFG%: Michigan 54.6 (11th), Syracuse 49.1 (139th)
TO%: Michigan 14.5 (1st), Syracuse 18.9 (119th)
OR%: Michigan 32.4 (144th), Syracuse 39.0 (8th)
FT Rate: Michigan 27.6 (338th), Syracuse 37.2 (136th)
Tempo: Michigan 65.3 (200th), Syracuse 64.3 (244th)
This game boils down to two keys – both from the Michigan offensive side of the ball. The first is obviously Michigan’s 3-point shooting. The second is Mitch McGary’s effectiveness.
Michigan Wolverines Burke shoots a three point basket over Kansas Jayhawks Young to tie the game during the second half in their South Regional NCAA men's basketball game in ArlingtonMichigan’s 3-point shooting vs. Syracuse’s zone defense: It is no secret Syracuse’s defense has been championship-level good in the tournament. The Orange have held opponents to 14-of-91 shooting from 3-point range in the tournament so far. That’s 15.4 percent or roughly half what a traditional team might shoot on an off night. Syracuse’s length and athleticism, especially at the top of the 2-3 zone, has made things tough for smaller guards (see Indiana with Yogi Ferrell and Jordan Hulls). Trey Burke is only 6-foot, but he’s the likely player of the year so what he lacks in height he makes up for in game-changing ability. Michigan’s other guards such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas (both 6-foot-6) won’t have the problems other players have had. They also don’t have a limit on how deep they can shoot the 3 from.
Hardaway is shooting 37.8 percent from 3-point range on the season including 50 percent (10-of-20) during the NCAA Tournament. Stauskas, a 44.9 percent shooter, is 8-for-18 (44.4 percent) during the tournament but is coming off a perfect 6-for-6 performance in the aforementioned blood bath against Florida. Burke (38.1 percent) also has the ability to get hot from deep regardless of the distance. Interestingly enough, Burke is just 7-for-27 during the tournament (3-for-16 if you take away the Kansas game that included Trey’s miracle).
If Michigan isn’t connecting on threes early the Syracuse zone will get better and better as the game wears on. Michigan will end up hoisting desperate rather than calculated threes and Syracuse will be able to get out in transition more. If Michigan is connecting on threes it will force Syracuse’s zone to creep out further allowing McGary and Michigan’s bigs to do more work inside.
Mitch McGary’s effectiveness vs. Syracuse’s “black hole” of the zone: What has made Syracuse’s defense that much more impressive during the tournament – other than the 3-point shooting stat – is how it recovers when the ball ends up near the basket. Whenever a big got the ball near the hoop there seemed to be a swarm of orange bodies flying toward him ready to swat the ball away. Indiana’s Cody Zeller, a projected NBA lottery pick, looked like an Argentinian backup in the post. He was forced to play small and he looked more like an undersized center than the 7-foot player he really is. That’s the nature of this specific Syracuse 2-3 zone. It never seems a player is out of place on defense and the unit never misses a beat.
CuseVsZellerEnter Mitch McGary. One could argue McGary has been Michigan’s MVP this postseason. Sure, Michigan wouldn’t have beaten Kansas without Burke’s heroics but it wouldn’t have been in that position had it not been for the fab freshman. McGary’s NCAA Tournament numbers (4 games): 70 points on 31-of-45 shooting, 44 rebounds, 2 assists, 11 steals, 4 blocks. Those are phenomenal numbers for a guy getting the most action of his short career under a big spotlight. McGary has played at least 25 minutes in all four tournament games. To compare, he played just 25+ minutes in four of Michigan’s previous 33 games – all during Michigan’s 1-3 stretch against the Big Ten’s Indiana-Ohio State-Wisconsin-Michigan State gauntlet.
Syracuse knows McGary’s big body will make room on the block and he’ll get some points. They also know he’s a 45.7 percent free throw shooters (4-of-10 in the tournament) so being more aggressive on defense to not allow a basket is more likely than not to work out in the points column. If McGary can draw fouls on Syracuse’s bigs as well as finishing around the basket (including pulling down a handful of offensive rebounds) the Orange might have to rely on their offense rather than defense to get the victory.
The Pick: I’ve gone 1-2 with my Michigan picks this postseason (Had South Dakota State +11.5 and Kansas -2 to go with Michigan -4.5 vs. VCU). That tells you how tough it has been to read this Michigan team with specific matchups. In tossup games I tend to go with the team getting points. That’s Syracuse in this case. But I can’t get the vision out of my head that Trey Burke & Co. go nuts from 3-point range and threaten to make as many triples in this game (14) as Syracuse’s previous four opponents made combined. Despite Jim Boeheim being 3-0 in national semifinal games Michigan shook off a 1-9 ATS spread to close the regular season and has now covered five of six games, including 4-0 ATS in the tournament. I like Michigan to grab a half-dozen point lead and play around that number until the final buzzer. Take Michigan -2.5 as the Wolverines will nab the final spot in Monday’s NCAA National Championship game.
Louisville (33-5) vs. Wichita State (30-8)
Kenpom Score: Louisville 70-60
Line: Louisville -10.5
Wichita State v Ohio StateAnalysis: The Cardinals have the look of a team of destiny. Ever since that 5 OT game at Notre Dame in mid February Louisville has been on a mission. The Cardinals haven’t lost since. Wichita State will no doubt present a challenge. What’s tough about this line is Louisville dominated Oregon and should have cruised to a 15-to-20-point win. Instead, Oregon made a late run, including a meaningless layup with eight seconds to play to lose by eight (Louisville closed at -10). I could see something similar happening in this game. Wichita State is good enough to win the contest and the fact the Shockers have only lost two games this year by more than 10 points is another key stat.
The pick: I see this game going exactly like Louisville’s win against Oregon; the Cardinals play with a comfortable, double-digit lead for most of the game before winning by 6-9 or something. Take the Shockers at +10.5 knowing Wichita State could (ALERT: pathetic pun coming)… SHOCK THE WORLD.
NCAA Tournament: 3-8 (it’s been madness, no doubt)
2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 67-42-1
2013 Year-to-Date: 75-45-1