(4) Michigan-(4) Syracuse, National Semifinal Preview: Danger Zone

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Exposition

It's Friday, and I still can't believe that Michigan is in the Final Four. But, the game is game is tomorrow, so I suppose it's officially time to get serious about things.

Most words are extraneous at this point. "Final Four" just about covers it all. Michigan is one victory away from a chance to compete for a national title. At the same time, each victory is a vast ocean, where first round games more closely resembled puddles. If you make it across these waters, you deserve a shot at the castle.

Regular season Big Ten champion Indiana had its shot against Syracuse:

Let's hope Michigan fares a little bit better.

The Opponent

The Syracuse Orange finished the pre-Big Dance season with a mark of 26-9 (11-7), capped by a Big East Tournament title game loss to fellow Final Four participant Louisville. Unlike last year's Big East final (for which I was in attendance), this year's matchup featured a bit more scoring. Despite being up 16 a few minutes into the second half, Syracuse went on to lose. 78-61.

Nonetheless, it was another great season for the Orange. SU didn't do a whole lot in the non-conference schedule, but they did knock off a solid San Diego State team to start the season. However, they dropped a four-point decision against Temple just before Christmas.

Anyway, as far as games that do matter (conference schedule and beyond), the Orange took seven pre-tournament conference losses: @Villanova, @Pitt, @UConn, Georgetown, @Marquette, Louisville and @Georgetown. All were relatively close save for the two games against the Hoyas, in which the 'Cuse lost by 11 and 22. Of course, Syracuse is in the Final Four and Georgetown was bounced in the opening round. Ah, college basketball, you're so crazy.

As for personnel, you should be familiar with this team by now, but anyway, six foot eight inch junior forward C.J. Fair leads the way for Boeheim's Orange, averaging 14.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg this season. He has been putting up numbers right around those averages this tournament, but his biggest performance thus far came against Cal in the second round, when he dropped 18 points in a six point SU victory.

Senior guard Brandon Triche averages 13.7 ppg on the season but has struggled from beyond the arc, shooting just 29.2% from there. Given that Nik Stauskas will likely be guarding him, you might be breathing a sigh of relief. Small sample size and all, but after going a combined 3/3 from beyond the arc against Montana and Cal, Triche went a combined 1/7 against Indiana and Marquette. Triche has okay shooting numbers in the past, so it's not like he could never shoot at all. Needless to say, if Triche does find his stroke in this one, that would be very bad indeed.

Rounding out Syracuse's core quartet of contributors are six foot eight inch senior forward James Southerland (13.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and the big guy playing point guard, Michael Carter-Williams (12.1 ppg, 7.4 apg).

Six foot nine inch forward Rakeem Christmas rounds out the starting five, averaging 5.1 ppg and 4.6 rpg. He put up a nice line of nine points and five boards against Montana in the opening round. Unlike Fair and Southerland, Christmas is not a threat from beyond the arc; in fact, he hasn't attempted a trey all season.

Forward Jerami Grant and guard Trevor Cooney get minutes off of the bench, but center Baye Keita is the main contributor from there. Keita doesn't offer much in the way of offense, but including the last Louisville game he is averaging 2.0 blocks per game in his last five outings.

The Gameplan

  • SHOOT THE J, SHOOT IT! Hesitation is anathema to success against the zone. Every movement needs to be with purpose, and when an open shot is there it must be taken before the swarming, long-armed amoeba can regroup and find you. Shooters like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas must be ready to shoot immediately; they will get some good looks, they just have to be mentally and physically ready to receive a pass and shoot, no matter what the result of the last shot may have been.
  • RUN BUT DON'T RUN I MEAN IN TREY BURKE WE TRUST. After watching Indiana attempt to beat the zone down the floor, something that ended in absolute catastrophe and 19 turnovers, I wonder if Michigan shouldn't try to slow things down. Then again, I remember we have Trey Burke, who has been pretty excellent about knowing when to push the action and when not to. Even Spike Albrecht has been pretty good at this, too, albeit in not as many minutes. Essentially, this all bullet boils down to "Trey Burke, captain, do what you gotta do." It's gotten us this far.
  • HIT THE GLASS. It's no secret that rebounding out of the zone is inherently difficult, no matter how much length or size you have. SU was 10th in the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage and 281st nationally. Mssrs. McGary, Horford and Robinson III: go to work.
  • BE FAST BUT DON'T HURRY. Dylan at UMHoops put up some excellent stuff about attacking the zone yesterday, which I encourage you to read if you haven't already done so. Dylan identified Louisville's Gorgui Deng as a primary factor in the victory; as such, the Wolverines will need Mitch McGary to operate out of the high post in a manner that a great player like Cody Zeller was seemingly unable to execute. Is this asking a lot of a freshman? Maybe, but McGary has proven to be more than up to the challenge this tournament. With that said, this game will be a bit more of a thinking man's game; as much as he'd probably like to, Mitch can't just bowl through a 2-3 zone. When Mitch catches, a decision needs to be made: take the elbow jumper, look for the high-low dump in, check the corner for a possibly open shooter, etc.
  • MAKE SHOTS, EH? I tried to get as far as I could without saying "make shots," but here I am. Sure, Michigan has a wizardly penetrator in Trey Burke, but hitting outside shots will be a primary contributor to a Michigan victory. Indiana shot 20% from three (3/15) and Marquette went a macabre 12.5% (3/24). Michigan will need to do just a touch better than that.

Miscellaneous Stats

  • Syracuse held Indiana to its season low in points in their Sweet 16 defeat of that region's 1-seeded Hoosiers.
  • The Orange are not far behind either VCU or Louisville as far as their opponents' turnover percentage: the Orange were second in the Big East in this category, forcing opponents to turn it over 23.6% of the time. As we all know, Michigan is one of the best at not turning it over. Something's got to give, right?
  • While defensive rebounding out of the zone might be an issue, the Orange attack the glass like a pack of velociraptors who just consumed 12 pixy sticks apiece. SU is ninth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing a whopping 39 percent of its misses. They didn't have great days on the offensive glass against either Indiana or Marquette, but they didn't need one.
  • Michael Carter-Williams knows that sharing is indeed caring, as he is at or near the top of every assists-related category. He is 10th nationally is assist percentage at 40.8 percent. MCW is an expert facilitator and deadly within the arc, but is only a 30% shooter from three. Once again, "stay in front" is simple advice that is much harder to execute in practice. At six foot six inches tall, I have to imagine somebody other than Burke will be given the task of checking MCW.

Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.

Michigan is a two-point favorite as of my writing this, and I'm just not so sure about anything anymore. I got that we'd beat SDSU, VCU and Florida right (although I was way off on the margin of victory for the latter two), and Trey Burke being Trey Burke was the only thing preventing my prediction of a close loss to Kansas from being wrong (not that I'm complaining).

The zone, on the other hand, is looking walking into a hall of mirrors. Some teams get confused, experience sensory chaos and vomit up a loss (e.g. Indiana). Others speed through it and do just fine (Louisville), emerging to the outside world to ask "that was it?"

If Michigan can put up a shooting performance like they did against Florida, well, Michigan could cruise to a comfortable win like Louisville did against SU in the conference tournament. Is it likely? No, probably not, unless Michigan has some leftover "Secret Stuff."

1) Michigan needs Trey Burke to be better than MCW, period. 2) Michigan needs to make shots, obviously. 3) Michigan needs Mitch McGary to be better than the long-armed Ents with speed that comprise the SU zone. This means confidence and quick decisions. McGary has no shortage of confidence or energy, but his efforts need to be far more controlled and focused in this one.

My initial thoughts were that this will be another blowout, in that Michigan will either outshoot the zone and put SU away or the Orange will do what they did against IU and Marquette and grind Michigan into a fine powder. However, as the week has gone along, I just can't see such a thing happening. In a game so dependent on the mercurial whims of the shooter, making any sort of prediction for a game like this is like eating pudding with chopsticks.

Once again, Michigan will have the best player on the floor. I don't feel at all good about this prediction, but I think that --among other things-- will be enough.

Michigan 65, Syracuse 64.

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