Peeling the Orange: Breaking down Syracuse's game and Michigan's keys to victory vs. the Orange

Ronald Martinez

Michigan will face a very good defense this Saturday in Atlanta. How good? The numbers make that clear. Here are five keys to the game and telling statistics to keep an eye on.

Shooting over the zone; as easy as it sounds?

All week you've heard people talk about it. The way to beat the Syracuse 2-3 zone is to shoot over it from the outside. Pretty easy for a team like Michigan, right?

One would think so, but it is important to remember just how much everyone else has tried to follow this conventional wisdom and how that has worked out in the past. Syracuse predictably gives up a lot of long shots. The Orange give up the fifth highest percentage of 3PA as compared to total FGA as 40.2% of opponent shots come from deep. The national average is 33%, which is right about where Michigan falls (33.8%). So everybody is trying to jack threes to beat the zone, right? How's that working out for them? Not good. Syracuse boasts the third best 3pt% defense in the nation, allowing opponents to convert on just 28.2 percent, which is almost six percentage points lower than the national average of 33.9%.

There are a couple factors involved here. First, Syracuse is an incredibly long team. The Orange are 30th in KenPom's effective height metric, and second in average height. The starting lineup is 6'4, 6'6, 6'8, 6'8. and 6'9. That kind of height makes it easier to contest shots and has led to Syracuse putting up the best block% in the nation (19.4%). Second, this could be a case of conventional wisdom leading teams astray. With the established key being to shoot over the zone and the Cuse zone defenders being capable of effecting shots as well as anyone in the nation, what follows is a lot of teams trying valiantly to put up as many questionable threes as possible to break the zone.

Keep away

When people talk about Michigan's success this season they will most likely rave about Trey Burke, Mitch McGary, the bevy of dynamic wing scorers, and a the dead-eye shooting (my god the shooting). That is all well and good, but what has really been a big difference for Michigan this year is the ability to turn possessions into shots thanks to unprecedented ball security. Michigan is the best team in the nation at holding onto the ball with a turnover rate of 14.5%. You know this. I harp on this all the time.

Once again Michigan is matched up against a defense capable of forcing turnovers and making life tough on the other team. Syracuse is 19th nationally in turnover rate forced at 23.6% and seventh in steal% with 13.8%. Once again, the Orange's long perimeter defenders and unique zone defensive scheme play a big role in throwing other teams off their game. Michigan has already dealt with two of the country's better turnover forcing defenses (VCU, UF) so far in the tournament. To keep this run alive, the Wolverines are going to need another efficient game of not turning the ball over.

Everyone wants a second chance

One of the things you give up when you commit primarily to a zone defense -- any zone defense, really, be it 2-3, 1-3-1, or box-and-1 -- is the ability to effectively rebound the ball on the defensive end. Removing the typical man assignments makes finding someone to box out much harder, and if offensive rebounders overload one area of the zone it makes it easier for someone to slip through. Syracuse is no stranger to this. The Orange are giving up a lot of offensive rebounds to opposing teams with a OR% of 34.3, which is 279th nationally and three points worse than the national average.

This is another area Michigan is going to need to exploit, and should be able to exploit. Glenn Robinson has spent the year wriggling into the lane to follow shots and get easy put backs, and Mitch McGary boasts the ninth best individual OR% in the nation. Against Kansas it was McGary's work on the boards that helped keep Michigan in the game when shots weren't falling. With Michigan most likely depending on a larger percentage of outside shots in this one, getting second chance points when those shots don't fall is going to be huge.

Attack, attack, attack

While the Big Ten season saw Michigan's transition offense sputter at times as the Wolverines struggled to for missed shots and turnovers which lead to fast-break opportunities, the last four games have given Michigan plenty of chances to get out and run, and the results have been very nice. Michigan used this strategy to blitz Florida early on and completely bury VCU over the long haul as the Rams continued to miss shots which kept them from pressing and forced them to play on their heels in transition.

This is once again going to be an important facet of the game. If Syracuse's most effective defense is in the half court when that 2-3 zone is set, Michigan is best served trying to score quickly when the opportunity presents itself. Syracuse likes to play at a slower pace (adj. Tempo of 64.3, 244th nationally). That is evident in the numbers. Opponent shots that come within ten seconds of a defensive rebound go in at a rate almost 10 percent higher than shots taken between 11 and 35 seconds left in the possession (50 FG% compared to 41 FG%). Off steals the difference is 20% in favor of shooting within the first ten seconds (65 FG% vs. 45 FG%). Those transition opportunities are valuable, as Syracuse is effective at slamming the door shut when those aren't there. Following a Syracuse basket the Orange allow opponents to shoot 36% from the floor within the first ten seconds and 39% between 11 and 35 seconds.

The lesson is clear: when you can run on Syracuse, you do it. When you can't take your time and find a good shot.

Let the Offense push the Defense

Syracuse has one weakness: it isn't a great offensive team. The Orange are very good, sitting 21st in KenPom's adj Off Eff ratings at 113.2, but most of the Orange's ranks in the four factors and shooting percentages fall in the low 100s (outside of an 8th place OR% ranking, which the team is understandably very good at being as tall as it is across the board). The key to Syracuse's run thus far in the tournament has been getting the defense to do its job so that it can win in spite of the offense. In the last three games Syracuse has posted point per game averages of 0.99, 0.95, and 1.02.

The mandate is clear: Michigan can win this game by winning the battle of offensive efficiency and neutralizing Syracuse's biggest advantage -- its defense. The more success Michigan can find against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, be it shooting over it, out rebounding it, or attacking before it is set, the more Michigan will be able to place pressure on a good-not-great Syracuse offense to keep up.

Usually in March it is defense that dictates games and wins championships. With the way Michigan's offense is playing now, the Wolverines have a very good chance to turn that formula on its head. Use an efficient offense to take the other team's stellar defense out of the game, and turn it into a battle of offensive efficiency.

It is a risky gamble given how easily an off shooting night or a few extra turnovers could wreck the balance of the gameplan, but so far Michigan has beaten some very good defensive teams with this strategy. Given the way Michigan matches up against Syracuse there is a good chance Michigan does it again.

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