Syracuse and Michigan meet Saturday evening at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with a trip to the national championship game at stake. Both teams are set to begin an unexpected Final Four journey, justifying early season hoops hype at each university.
The fourth-seeded Orange overcame Big East rival Marquette Saturday in Elite Eight action. Syracuse stumbled during the regular season's final stretch, suffering seven losses in 12 games, but recovered just in time for a strong tournament run.
Michigan also meandered its way through the second half of conference play, going 6-6 in its last dozen games against Big Ten opponents. The Wolverines' late-season slide dropped the team from a potential No. 1 ranking to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
However, the team has rallied in a big way. Michigan stunned No. 1 seed Kansas on Friday before bullying third-seeded Florida in the Elite Eight
A season's worth of success and failure for both squads gives us an indication of what will make the difference in this matchup. Let's break down five keys that should ultimately determine which team punches its ticket for the national title game.
Jim Boeheim's bunch is anchored by its dependable 2-3 zone defense. The Hall of Fame coach has seen his squad's defensive tenacity shift into another gear in the tournament.
Syracuse is suffocating opposing offenses, holding teams to 29 percent shooting in four tourney contests. The Orange dismantled No. 1 seed Indiana in the Sweet 16, limiting a highly touted Hoosiers attack to 50 points and 33 percent shooting.
Syracuse followed up that effort with a monstrous performance against Marquette. The Golden Eagles managed only 12 field goals and 39 points in Saturday's Elite Eight matchup.
Michigan has nearly a week to develop a game plan that counters the Orange's defensive strategy. The Wolverines must be able to create open looks along the perimeter with orchestrated efforts early before Syracuse bottles up passing lanes.
Trey Burke burst onto the national scene this year with a superb regular season. The sophomore guard earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors, emerging as a scintillating scorer and dynamic distributor.
In the past few days, the 6-foot guard has gone from elite player to program legend. Burke is the catalyst for the first Wolverines team to reach the Final Four since the "Fab Five" era.
He dominated the closing minutes of Michigan's Sweet 16 game against top-seeded Kansas, leading a late surge that left nationwide onlookers stunned. Burke buried a deep contested three-pointer with three seconds remaining in regulation, providing arguably the tourney's top highlight so far.
His memorable shot sent the game into overtime, where the Wolverines prevailed.
Burke is averaging 19 points per game during the past three contests, collecting 24 total assists during that span.
He is clearly in the crosshairs of a rugged Syracuse defense.
Syracuse's defensive prowess has been imperative throughout the tournament due to the team's lack of a consistent offense. The Orange are not an efficient shooting squad, currently ranking 123rd in the nation in field-goal percentage.
Despite its stunning postseason success, Syracuse is still struggling to connect from the floor. The Orange are shooting only 40 percent during the past three victories.
Syracuse is capable of getting hot from the perimeter, particularly when James Southerland and C.J. Fair find success. The Orange can't afford to come out off the mark against Michigan.
The Wolverines freshman is on a tour de force in the tournament. Mitch McGary is averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds per game through four matchups.
Take into account that he averages only seven points and six rebounds per game, and it's apparent that he is among the key cogs in Michigan's postseason resurgence. The 6'10" forward refuses to allow his lack of experience to affect his performance on a grand stage.
McGary pulled down 14 rebounds against both VCU and Kansas. He was a defensive intimidator versus Florida in the Elite Eight.
McGary grabbed nine rebounds, tallied five steals and blocked a pair of shot attempts in the Wolverines' commanding win. As long as he continues to play like a vet, Michigan should own an interior advantage against Syracuse.
No one can deny the season-long impact that Michael Carter-Williams has had at Syracuse. The 6'6" point guard ranked among national leaders in assists and steals throughout his sophomore campaign and may have been the best Big East player not named Otto Porter Jr.
Carter-Williams has caught the interest of NBA scouts due to his versatile skill set and relentless competitiveness. Yet, he still seems average in one pivotal department—shooting.
He shoots below 40 percent from the floor, hitting only 30 percent of his three-point attempts. Carter-Williams has been markedly better in the tournament, converting 19 of his 39 field-goal tries.
He poured in 24 points against Indiana and looked like a legitimate draft lottery prospect. Saturday's matchup with Michigan is an opportunity for Carter-Williams to rise up and prove himself as a top-level scorer.
This game's greatest draw is Carter-Williams versus Trey Burke. Can the Syracuse catalyst steal the show?