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2013 Final Four: Michigan vs. Syracuse Blogger Q&A Part II

In part two of a two-part series, I exchanged emails with Sean Keeley of Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician in preparation for Saturday's Final Four showdown. We talked about the Michigan offense, the Syracuse zone, and what both coaches mean to their respective program. Check out part one over at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician.


Zach - Jim Boeheim hasn't won a title in 10 years, and the farthest his team has advanced in the last decade was the Elite Eight. Is this do or die time for Boeheim to get one more title? How many more years do you think he coaches, and what happens to the program when it is placed in someone else's hands?

Sean - Boeheim is Syracuse's coach for as long as he wants to be. You might hear some grumbling from the fringe but he's about as close to untouchable as one can get (at least unless there's yet another NCAA issue we don't know about).

If you look at Boeheim's career, the last five years might just be the best era in the history of his 37-year career. While we haven't won a title since 2003, the program is finally living up to the ideal that we all have for it...that we're an elite program that should always be ranked in or near the top 15 and is a near-lock to make the Sweet Sixteen every season. And now, our expectations are beyond that after two-straight Elite Eights (and now a Final Four).

The big knock against Boeheim is that "he should have more to show for it," and I'm not gonna argue that, compared to Coach K or Tom Izzo, he's not at the same level. That said, he's still taken four different teams in four different decades to Final Fours and racked up more wins than everyone but one guy. Maybe he's not "the greatest" but he's pretty great.

My personal guess was that he was sticking around for one more Final Four run. But now that we're here, I'm not so sure. He's usually fairly candid about his career and according to him, he's not retiring, which I'll believe for now. I think he welcomes the chance to coach head-to-head against Coach K and Roy Williams in the ACC. Also, I think he feels a sense of ownership over this program and wants to shepherd it into its next era right.

If you're asking me to put a number to it, I say he's got two more seasons in him. Before getting back to the Final Four, I would have said 3-5, but I think with that pressure gone, he'll just want to see things through for a little while longer.

When he does go, hopefully, Mike Hopkins will take over. Coach Hop has followed Boeheim's blueprints pretty well. He played for SU and has coached the team since the late 90's. You name the Syracuse star since then and there's a good chance Hopkins recruited him. While he doesn't have head coaching experience, he's respected enough by Boeheim and others that he's a yearly candidate for national openings such as USC, Providence and UNC-Charlotte. Hopefully, he'll stick around for a few more years and then the program can transition smoothly into the post-Boeheim world...which will still be pretty weird.

So, if Michigan is going to beat Syracuse, what must happen? And vice versa, if Syracuse is going to beat Syracuse, what will is take?

Zach - I talked about it earlier, and I'm going to stick with it: I think the one thing that has been largely overlooked thus far in Michigan's tournament run is ball control. The Wolverines were great all season at holding on to the ball -- the best in the country in fact, with a turnover rate of 14.5% -- and against three very different but very good defensive teams, that has been a huge difference.

While it doesn't seem like Syracuse relies as heavily on generating turnovers to create transition opportunities (to the layman, anyway) given the relatively plodding pace (64.3 possessions a game) compared to a Kansas or VCU, the ability of the Orange to force turnovers jumps off the page when you look at the advanced stats. Seventh overall in steal% (13.7), first in block% (19.4, a full one percent higher than the second place team), and 19th in turnover rate at 23.6%. Those are impressive numbers generated in one of the best conferences in basketball. Still, Michigan has proven game after game to be good at avoiding turnovers. On first glance this doesn't seem to be a big deal, as Syracuse won ten of 13 games where the opponent posted a turnover rate of less than 20%, but in those games Syracuse allowed an average of 8 more points per game (66) compared to the season as a whole (58 per game). If Michigan can avoid turnovers it will put the onus on Syracuse's offense to win the game because the Orange won't simply be able to grind out a low scoring win. This goes double if Michigan is hitting its shots.

Defensively, what Michigan has going for it is a hot-streak. That will need to continue. Syracuse is 5-6 when scoring under one point per possession this season, and Michigan has held three of its four tournament opponents to that number. What is going to be important for Michigan in this one is contesting shots and forcing misses. Five of those six losses came with Syracuse posting an eFG% of 40.2 or less. Michigan doesn't seem capable of matching that -- even Florida posted a 45.1 eFG% last Sunday -- but if the Wolverines keep Syracuse below its season average of a 49.1 eFG% while also limiting turnovers on the other end, it could be just enough of an offensive advantage to win a scoring battle.

Although this means that Syracuse needs to focus on two things: forcing turnover and making shots. The former seems like a no-brainer, but the latter is where Michigan fans should worry. This team has had trouble at times stopping opposing offenses from scoring, and Michigan is going to have a tough enough time dealing with the Syracuse zone that it needs every cushion it can get offensively. The Orange shooting the lights out won't help.

So what do you see as the keys to the game? Where does Michigan look vulnerable to your eyes, and having watched a lot of Syracuse basketball this year, where do you think Michigan could gain the biggest advantage?

Sean - Gotta admit, if there's a way to beat Syracuse, Michigan has players that can do it. And if there's a thing that Syracuse does extremely well, Michigan has someone who can neutralize it. Ultimately, it's going to come down to which team does the things they're good at and avoids letting the other team run the show.

If Syracuse can keep Michigan from breaking the zone and limit the amount of three-point shots they hit (or just hope they miss most of them), that's going to work in their favor. In some ways, the game reminds me of Syracuse's 2003 Final Four game against Texas. The Longhorns came in with a strong scoring attack led by T.J. Ford and the Orange were able to keep him and their offense in check.

One thing for Syracuse to look out for and Michigan to key in on is getting James Southerland, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita into foul trouble. The Orange have little depth in the front court, with only freshman DaJuan Coleman on the bench. If its up to Boeheim, Coleman won't play again this year, but Michigan should try to force him into the lineup. As for Southerland, Syracuse's offense has a history of going ice cold when he gets into foul trouble and sits out long stretches.

I'm guessing Michigan will watch the Big East Championship game for some inspiration. Louisville just attacked Syracuse relentless in the second half and it totally took the Orange out of the game. They couldn't handle the pressure and can be prone to making mistakes when pushed. If Michigan can force the issue, they can give Syracuse fits.

Ultimately, I'm pulling for Syracuse and I think Syracuse can win but I also think Michigan has all the weapons necessary to neutralize the zone and simply out-pace the Orange. In all likelihood, it's going to be a great game. Good luck to you guys.

Zach - I guess that is what worries me most: Michigan has all the weapons and the momentum and is now a sort of trendy pick that didn't seem possible a week ago at this time with the specter of Kansas and Florida looming. Now it is high-flying Michigan set to push the Syracuse zone to the limits. Shoot over around and through it. Of course none of these things matter at all once that ball is tossed up at half-court and the clock stops, but it's what I have now, and worrying seems like the sensible thing to do when all there is left to do otherwise is wait.

But it does get to something more. Michigan's offense has been at times dynamic and unstoppable. It has also been choked and bullied. Syracuse isn't the kind of team that looks like it will be able to forcibly throw Michigan off its offensive game, but instead the Orange look poised to try and needle and harass Michigan. Don't make life impossible, just make it a chore. Michigan knows what it needs to do to beat the Syracuse zone: shoot the ball well, don't turn it over, and grab rebounds. That's the easy part; figuring the game out. The hard part is doing it.

That's why Syracuse is nearly dead last in the ratio of 3PAs to FGAs allowed (40% of opponents shots come from deep). Everyone knows you have to shoot over the zone. It is also why Syracuse is third in 3pt% allowed (28..2). Shooting over a well executed 2-3 zone manned by long, athletic defenders isn't very easy. Same thing with turnovers. You tell yourself you won't do it, then you match-up against a zone defense you've studied on film and practiced against the B-squad, and the game comes and things fall apart.

Michigan will score. The Wolverine offense is too good not to. Whether it scores consistently and efficiently enough to overcome a good Syracuse offense (and a vulnerable Michigan defense) on the other end of the floor is the ultimate question.

At the end of the day I think Michigan wins a tight one for two reasons. First, I don't like picking against the sage predictions of KenPom. Second, I'm all done betting against Trey Burke. It has been great previewing the game with you, and I really hope it lives up to the hype -- just kidding, I hope we blow you guys out of the water. But seriously, this one should be a barn burner, and whatever team makes it out alive will have earned its spot in the title game. I just hope its Michigan. I'm not ready to move of from this feeling just yet.

Good luck and go blue.

(Part one of this exchange is here. Read it.)