When Michigan faces Syracuse in the Final Four on Saturday, it will feature two coaches—John Beilein and Jim Boeheim—who share some history.
Beilein spent nine seasons at Division II Le Moyne College from 1983-92. Of course, Le Moyne is located in Syracuse, New York, and at that time, Boeheim was nearby, in the process of building the Orange into a national college basketball power.
Then, when West Virginia was looking for a coach back in 2002, Boeheim offered West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong some advice, according to The Detroit Free-Press.
"I told him to hang up the phone and call John Beilein back and hire him without waiting another minute, because he's a great coach and he's won every place he's been," Boeheim said.
Since then, Beilein and Boeheim have squared off against one another nine times. In each meeting, Syracuse has come out on top.
Now, Beilein will try to break through and beat Boeheim in a national semifinal, somewhere Boeheim has never lost in three previous trips to the Final Four.
Saturday will feature two of the more cerebral coaches in the country, and it will pit Michigan’s potent offense against Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone.
The Beilein Offense
Not happy with where things were headed, Beilein came up with his offensive system when he was at Le Moyne back the late 1980s, according to MichiganDaily.com. He met with Le Moyne athletic director Tom Niland, who is also Beilein’s uncle, and Niland suggested he move away from the traditional two-man post system Le Moyne was running instead spreading the floor.
Beilein finally acted on Niland’s idea after seeing Washington on television under coach Andy Russo, who did not have two post players clogging the lane like most offenses of the time. Beilein reached out to Russo who then sent him some diagrams of Jack Hartman’s two-guard offense, according to MichiganDaily.com.
Thus, the wheels were set in motion for Beilein’s offensive attack that has helped lead four different schools to the NCAA tournament.
The offense features four perimeter players and one big man. Good ball movement and precise cuts with excellent spacing are Beilein trademarks.
There are no set patterns. Instead, the offense operates based on what the defense does, requiring the players to adjust based on how it is being defended.
“It’s sort of organized confusion, it’s read and react,” Beilein said. “If one guy does one thing, it changes the whole thing.”
Then, of course, there is the three-point shooting. In order for the offense to be effective, Beilein’s teams have to be able to shoot from deep. His first year at Michigan, the Wolverines shot 31.2 percent from three and finished the season 10-22. In 2009-10, Michigan made just 29.7 percent from three and was 15-17.
This year, Beilein has taken his offense to another level. Now, his players are both skilled and athletic. As a result, Michigan is No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
Saturday, Beilein will try to figure out a way to penetrate the zone and create open looks from three. So far this tournament, that has been a difficult task.
The Syracuse 2-3 Zone
Oddly enough, Boeheim decided to exclusively play his 2-3 zone after losing to Le Moyne in an exhibition game before the 2009-10 season, according to USA Today. Before that, the Orange would play some man-to-man along with the zone defense.
Since the decision to exclusively play zone, Syracuse has ranked in the top 20 in defensive efficiency every year, according to KenPom.com.
This year, the Orange rank fifth in defensive efficiency.
The defense is particularly effective this season because of the length and athleticism of the Syracuse roster. Of the nine players who play double-digit minutes, two are 6’4”, one is 6’6” and the rest are 6’8” or taller.
As a result, opponents are shooting just 28.9 percent against Syracuse in the NCAA tournament and just 15.4 percent from three. In the Elite Eight, Marquette shot a paltry 22.6 percent from the floor.
As Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins explained to USA Today, most teams are limited when it comes to how they attack a 2-3 zone. There isn't the same number of offensive variations that a team who plays man-to-man defense has to deal with.
Like Beilein’s offense, the Orange can adapt based on how their defense is being attacked.
"Most teams that you play might have three or four zone offenses,” Hopkins said. “You don't see it a lot. It gives you a little bit of an advantage. Our adjustments we can make on the fly, based on how people attack us. We've seen everything."