SYRACUSE VS. MICHIGAN
Matchup: The first-ever meeting between two No. 4 seeds in the NCAA Tournament pits the Syracuse Orange against the Michigan Wolverines. The Orange rode the 2-3 zone to Atlanta with superior defensive performances against Indiana and Marquette. Syracuse will play in the Final Four for the first time since winning it all with Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Meanwhile, the Wolverines outlasted Kansas in a thrilling OT victory in the Sweet 16 behind Trey Burke's heroics, then shot the lights out against the Florida Gators in a game that was never really close. This is Michigan's first trip to the Final Four since the Fab Five in 1993. Yes, it's been 20 years since Chris Webber called the timeout he didn't have. The Wolverines hope this time around, their trip to the Final Four will be remembered for a championship.
Syracuse Orange, East Region No. 4 seed
Backcourt: The guards are the strength of this team, with senior leader Brandon Triche and sophomore sensation Michael Carter-Williams. Both can handle the ball, get to the hoop but also hit the open 3-pointer. Carter-Williams is a future lottery pick, a 6-foot-6 point guard with NBA talent. He was among the leading assist men in the nation this season. He also averaged 2.8 steals per game. Triche is a heady floor general who is more comfortable in the lane and with his mid-range game. Although not the greatest shooter, Triche has knocked down some clutch shots in this year's tourney. The two form a dynamic defensive tandem at the front of the 2-3 zone as well, which will be explored in more depth below.
Frontcourt: As noted, Syracuse is a guard-oriented squad. Even its forwards, C.J. Fair and James Southerland, are often more comfortable on the outside than on the interior. Southerland in particular can really shoot the three-ball; he set the Big East tournament record with 19 makes from downtown. Fair is a talented lefty who has more of a mid-range shooting game, but is also dangerous taking the ball to the rack. Fair does not get nearly enough pub for his impact on this team; he is both the leading scorer and rebounder. Meanwhile, the centers are only valuable on defense for the Orange, as Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita are mostly shot-blockers.
X-Factor: The 2-3 zone. The most pivotal aspect of this game will be how Michigan attacks the vaunted 2-3 zone of the 'Cuse. Indiana couldn't figure out how to attack the zone in the regional semifinal, and the Orange held Marquette to an abysmal 39 points in the Elite Eight matchup. The length and athleticism of Michael Carter-Williams and C.J. Fair in particular pose nightmares for opposing teams, as Syracuse attacks the passing lanes and is able to tip, deflect or catch an abundance of passes. Michigan turns the ball over less than any team in the country, so this will perhaps be the ultimate test for the 2-3 zone. Stopping Trey Burke's forays into the paint and keeping Mitch McGary off the glass will be two crucial keys for the Orange.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
They'll Win If: they force turnovers. Michigan is the least turnover-prone team in the country, averaging just 9.4 turnovers per game. However, the Orange have forced at least 14 turnovers in every game during the Tournament. Extra turnovers mean extra possessions for the Orange, fewer points for the Wolverines and likely more easy buckets for the Orange. The turnover battle will go a long way in determining Saturday's victor.
Michigan Wolverines, South Region No. 4 seed
Backcourt: The Wolverines have the best point guard in the nation in Trey Burke. Burke is a bona fide superstar, and a surefire lottery pick. He can find open teammates and is happy to defer if their shots are falling. However, he can score at will, too, as witnessed by his shooting performance in the unbelievable comeback against Kansas in the regional semifinal. Although Burke can hit the three (40.1 percent this season from beyond the arc), he is most dangerous when driving to the basket. He has the skills and body control to make impossible layups or feed his slashing teammates for easy baskets. Alongside Burke is Tim Hardaway Jr., a streaky shooter who has an excellent all-around game. While he doesn't have the handle of his father, he is bigger, stronger and more athletic. At 6-6, 205, Hardaway is a handful for opposing defenses, as he can hit the trey or use his size to beat up smaller guards on the interior. The third guard in coach Jon Beilein's three-guard set is freshman sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, who could not miss in the Elite Eight against the Gators.
Frontcourt: The emergence of Mitch McGary at center could be the biggest reason why Michigan has made it to the Final Four. The freshman did not have much of an impact early in the season, but has started every game in the Tournament. He has two double-doubles in four games, while narrowly missing two more with nine-rebound performances against South Dakota State and Florida. He is skilled around the basket, ferocious on the boards and more athletic than his frame initially suggests. On a team that likes to play small, McGary's tough presence looms very large on the inside. The other forward is Glenn Robinson III, or "Little Dog," in homage to his father. GR3 is more of a perimeter player, though does possess superior athleticism and is not afraid to mix it up down low.
X-Factor: Stauskas. The Wolverines were in control from the get-go against the Gators in the regional final, largely because Stauskas was on fire. The Wolverines have so much perimeter talent with Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, that it's easy to forget about the three-point dynamo in Stauskas. He was 6-for-6 on treys against Florida in a game that was never really in doubt. Stauskas should stretch the zone with his outside shooting ability against Syracuse. If his shot is falling, it could spell doom for the Orange.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
South Dakota State, 71-56
Kansas, 87-85 OT
They'll Win If: Trey Burke controls the game. It's a simple concept, but Burke is the best player on the floor. If he can break down the Syracuse zone and find open teammates or get himself easy looks near the bucket, the Wolverines will have a great change of winning. If he struggles to get going, turns the ball over and makes poor decisions with the basketball, the Orange will frustrate the Michigan offense, get out in transition and change the complexion of this game.
Coach Jim Boeheim brought up an excellent point at his postgame press conference following the win over Marquette. He said that opposing teams practice against the zone and get lulled into a false sense of security, thinking they have a handle on it. In Boeheim's estimation, the difference is that teams are playing against a 2-3 zone, but it isn't the SYRACUSE 2-3 zone. This season's Syracuse zone is different than past years because of its length and athleticism. More specifically, the difference is Michael Carter-Williams, who barely saw the court as a freshman last year. He is 6-6 and stands as one of the front two guards at the top of the zone. Opposing guards can't see over him, and he uses his length to contest shots and disrupt the passing lanes. C.J. Fair, who came off the bench last season, has had a similar impact. Remember the athletes that Syracuse had the last time it was in the Final Four? Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick, two super-athletic, long, disruptive presences on the defensive end.
Michigan has the athletes and the talent to win this game, but THIS Syracuse zone is something the Wolverines have not seen before. The 2-3 will take the Wolverines out of their offensive rhythm, and the Orange will survive and advance to the championship game.