The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines have had arguably the toughest path to the Final Four of any team in the tournament, and it won’t get any easier from here.
Michigan drubbed Shaka Smart’s VCU squad in the third round, upset No. 1 Kansas in the Sweet 16 and did it again against No. 3 Florida in the fifth round, and it’s time to start considering the Wolverines an under-seeded championship contender.
No. 4 Syracuse has also been the subject of some skepticism throughout the tournament. Considered an over-seeded product of a strong conference, the Orange bested both No. 1 Indiana and No. 3 Marquette en route to a Final Four appearance, silencing critics with every big win.
Though they have done it in very different fashions, the Wolverines and Orange have been pleasant surprises in the Big Dance. If they hope to keep dancing to the national title game, both will need big performances from some talented players.
We’ll take a look at several players who have to come up big in Atlanta to give their respective teams a shot at a national title on April 8.
C.J. Fair, Syracuse
Syracuse’s leading scorer in both the regular season and the tournament, forward C.J. Fair has been the Orange’s best player all season. He isn’t the X-factor in this matchup, but he is the catalyst.
The 6’8” junior has averaged 13.8 points through the first five rounds of the tournament on 60.6 percent shooting from the field. Consistency is key in the big dance, and Fair has provided as much as the Orange have needed to advance to the Final Four.
The Wolverines have the ability to score a ton of points, courtesy of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Glenn Robinson III and a bevy of complementary scorers. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone has to hold up against Michigan’s scorers, but the Orange can’t slouch at the offensive end as they did against Marquette.
Shooting 38 percent from the floor (as Syracuse did in the Elite Eight) isn’t going to be enough to upend Michigan on Saturday. Fair has to pace the offense with another consistent scoring effort and an efficient shooting performance from the field.
Trey Burke, Michigan
Syracuse’s 2-3 zone has been one of the biggest stories of the tournament. Jim Boeheim didn’t invent it, but his players are certainly perfecting it this postseason.
Marquette didn’t stand a chance to defeat the zone in the Elite Eight and Indiana faced a difficult matchup against it in the Sweet 16. Neither team was able to consistently find the bottom of the bucket from behind the arc this season, and if Michigan fails to do so on Saturday, it will join them in watching the championship from the sidelines.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke will be the key to beating Syracuse’s zone on Saturday. As long as he can keep the ball moving around the perimeter and take advantage of open looks when he gets them, the Wolverines will be in fine shape to take down the defense that has baffled almost everyone through the first five rounds.
Burke won’t have to be Michigan’s primary scorer, but he will have to be a strong facilitator and offensive leader. Hardaway, Robinson and Nik Stauskas are all shooting 33 percent or better from behind the arc this year, meaning creating shots for that trio will be just as important as hitting the open deep ball.
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse
If Fair is the catalyst, sophomore Michael Carter-Williams is Syracuse’s X-factor. The 6’6” guard has led the Orange in rebounding, assists and steals in the tournament, including a 24-point, five-rebound performance against Indiana in the Sweet 16.
Carter-Williams isn’t a consistent long-range shooter, but he won’t have to be against Michigan. He’ll have to be extremely consistent at the defensive end, however.
The Wolverines boast a ton of length at the guard and forward positions, and mismatches have been prevalent in every game Michigan has played in the tournament. Shutting down Hardaway, Robinson and Stauskas (each 6’6”) will be a task for which Carter-Williams is aptly suited.
A 15-plus-point performance against Michigan isn’t out of the question, but don’t expect Carter-Williams to be as big a factor at the offensive end as he is as a perimeter defender and rebounder.
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