For the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament, two No. 4 seeds will meet in the Final Four. Solving the Syracuse Orange's lauded 2-3 zone defense is one of three keys the Michigan Wolverines will need to execute on Saturday to advance to their first national title game since 1993.
Although Michigan's scouting reports will all remind it that Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone, nothing will prepare the Wolverines for what they are going to face.
"The only time it's a 2-3 zone is when they're waiting for you to bring the ball to it," former Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr. told Grantland's Charles P. Pierce. "Then, it becomes something else."
One of the most common defenses in basketball has become a staple for head coach Jim Boeheim. The future hall of famer has implored the same defensive tactics since taking over the Syracuse basketball program in 1976. Boeheim's 920-310 overall record validates the success of his schemes.
Michigan has relied primarily on its explosive offense, which Boeheim tabbed as the best his team will face this season, to end a 20-year Final Four drought.
The Maize and Blue are averaging 78.8 points per game in the NCAA tournament. Efficiency has not been a problem for the Wolverines offensively, despite piling up points. Michigan has shot 47 percent in its four postseason victories.
All the while, college basketball experts are running out of words to describe the Orange defense. Syracuse has held its opponents to 28.8 percent from the field in the Big Dance.
Head coach John Beilein faced Boeheim eight times during his five-year coaching stint with the West Virginia Mountaineers, and once with Michigan in 2010.
Unfortunately, Beilein has never solved Boeheim's zone, and is 0-9 all-time against the Orange.
Beating the zone will not be the only task Michigan must complete in order to take down Syracuse, though. Here is what the Wolverines need to do to send the Orange home this weekend:
Attack the Zone
First and foremost, Michigan cannot show any fear in taking on Syracuse's suffocating 2-3 zone. The key to beating this defense is to attack the middle, establish a presence in the high post and force the opposition to pick their poison.
Freshman big man Mitch McGary will set a number of high screens in an attempt to free up space on the perimeter for Wooden Award candidate Trey Burke.
After the pick comes, Burke's decision-making abilities will take over. The Big Ten Conference Player of the Year can either pull up for a mid-range jumper or drive to draw defenders away from the corner and baseline.
Driving through the wings of the perimeter should give Burke plenty of chances to kick the ball to Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III for open shots.
Stauskas will be as confident as ever. The Canadian sharp-shooter knocked down 6-of-6 three-pointers in the Wolverines' 79-59 rout of the Florida Gators last Sunday.
Robinson has averaged 13.5 points per contest during Michigan's run to Atlanta. The freshman small forward will have another key responsibility on Saturday, too.
Aside from knocking down open looks near the rim, Robinson has to be efficient in the high post. The Wolverines will look to establish either Robinson, or McGary near the top of the key, which will open up the slot.
This is where the zone defense will be at its weakest. The slot is the area on the floor between the edge of the key and inside of the arc near the baseline.
Both Stauskas and junior shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. should get some quality looks from the weak point. Knocking those down will be vital to Michigan's success, because Syracuse will not surrender many uncontested shots.
The length of Michael Carter-Williams (6'6"), Brandon Triche (6'4"), C.J. Fair (6'8"), Rakeem Christmas (6'9") and James Southerland (6'8") will give the Wolverines fits. Maintaining composure is another part of attacking the zone.
Frustration and impatience only leads to bad shots. Michigan can ill afford to start jacking up deep jumpers and forcing its offense, if it's going to beat the Orange.
Limit Second-Chance Opportunities
One statistic that will most definitely affect the outcome of this national semifinal is second-chance points.
Syracuse does not shoot the ball particularly well (44 percent), but its large lineup has the ability to grab several offensive rebounds.
McGary is playing much better in the post, which has helped the Wolverines hold opposing teams to nine or less offensive boards in the NCAA tournament. Robinson and Hardaway need to be active on the glass as well for Michigan to keep the Orange from cleaning up their misses.
As long as the Wolverines are forcing Syracuse to take jump shots from outside the paint and grab the off-target attempts, they will be playing for a national title on Monday night.
Win the Turnover Battle
Not only does the Orange's zone defense infuriate opposing offenses with their length, they force turnovers through pressure and various traps.
It will be critical for Michigan to win the turnover battle against Syracuse. The Orange have forced 16.5 turnovers per game in the Big Dance. The Wolverines only average nine giveaways per contest.
There have been some periods of time when Michigan has been a bit careless with the basketball. The opening minutes of the second half against Florida were sluggish. The VCU Rams had the Wolverines out of control during the early portions of the final 20 minutes in the round of 32 as well.
Conversely, Michigan will need to take advantage of Syracuse's turnovers, too. According to Beilein, the Wolverines scored 20 points in transition against the Gators in the Elite Eight.
The Wolverines need to get out and run because it is when they are at their best. Turnovers are one of the best ways to do this. The Orange turn the ball over 12 times per game so there will be opportunities for Michigan to take advantage of.
In the end, Burke should be able to navigate the zone well enough to free up the Wolverines' role players. Look for a big game from either Stauskas or Hardaway from the outside.
McGary will make some mistakes in the high post, but he should knock down a few mid-range jumpers and finish with a point total in the mid-teens.
Once Michigan starts finding ways to score against the zone, Syracuse will not be able to keep up at the other end of the floor. The Wolverines should pull away late in this battle at the Georgia Dome.
Prediction: Michigan by seven
Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam.
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