Michigan vs. Syracuse: Preview and Predictions for 2013 Final Four Matchup
Unless you live in a state that starts with the letter "K," you're probably of the opinion that Syracuse-Michigan is this weekend's best Final Four matchup.
Both teams come to Atlanta as No. 4 seeds, but observers will tell you the talent level on each squad exceeds that relatively modest rank.
Michigan features AP Player of the Year Trey Burke and a supporting cast stocked with NBA-caliber talent. Syracuse finished last season 34-3 and has an equally gifted floor general in Michael Carter-Williams.
Both teams began the season ranked in the AP Top 10. Both suffered through late-season slumps. And both, most importantly, have reasserted their dominance in the postseason.
So, who has the edge coming into Saturday?
Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.
Record: 30-9, 11-7 (Big East)
Coach: Jim Boeheim
Seed: No. 4 (East Region)
How They Got Here: Def. Montana (13), 81-34; Def. California (12), 66-60; Def. Indiana (1), 61-50; Def. Marquette (3), 55-39
Best Player: Michael Carter-Williams, PG
Checking in at 6'6" and just 185 pounds, Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams is one of the college game's most peculiar (and electrifying) athletic specimens. On his best days, Carter-Williams' exceptional reach allows him to complete passes others wouldn't dare attempt and contest passes most would simply ignore.
His jump shot doesn't measure up to counterpart Trey Burke's, but Carter-Williams is the kind of do-it-all athlete who can control the game without lighting up the scoreboard.
Syracuse Wins If...
It dominates the offensive glass.
The Orange aren't a great scoring team, and they don't have a great finisher inside who can take advantage of Michigan's relatively small starting lineup.
They do, however, rank among the nation's 10 best in offensive-rebounding percentage. If Syracuse can get a few easy putbacks—or even just create a handful of multiple-shot possessions—it should be able to keep pace with Michigan's offense.
Syracuse Loses If...
C.J. Fair and James Southerland don't make shots.
Fair and Southerland (both 6'8" forwards) are Syracuse's most efficient finishers. And on a team that lacks scoring punch, that role is a critical one.
Southerland is a standout shooter with excellent range. Fair is more of an inside-out player, but he, too, has the capability to connect from deep.
When those two are playing well and keeping defenses honest, point guard Michael Carter-Williams is almost impossible to contain.
When they aren't and Carter-Williams takes it upon himself to shoot, the Syracuse offense can head south in a hurry.
Record: 30-7, 12-6 (Big Ten)
Coach: John Beilein
Seed: No. 4 (South Region)
How They Got Here: Def. South Dakota State (13), 71-56; Def. VCU (5), 78-53; Def. Kansas (1), 87-85 OT; Def. Florida (3), 79-59
Best Player: Trey Burke, PG
If this slide was entitled "Meet Every College Basketball Team in America" (not sure why it would be, but bear with me), Burke would still be the prizewinner.
A natural distributor with excellent complementary scoring ability, Burke has been the undisputed focal point of college basketball's best offense. The Ohio native isn't an exceptional athlete and doesn't possess great size, but he's quick off the bounce and has an almost preternatural ability to avoid turnovers.
When you have the ball in your hands as much as Burke does, that last skill is vital.
Michigan Wins If...
It hits better than 40 percent from three.
When it comes to the three-ball, Syracuse's defense is an odd duck.
The Orange, unlike most zone-dominant teams, are exceptionally good at limiting opponents' success rate from beyond. In fact, Jim Boeheim's team ranks third nationally in three-point-shooting-percentage allowed.
Those figures, however, haven't stopped foes from gunning. Syracuse's opponents take 40.2 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. Only 14 other D-I teams see their opposition shoot more from deep.
Michigan is one of the country's best three-point-shooting teams and the Wolverines chuck it at a reasonably healthy rate.
Considering both sides of the equation, you'd expect the Wolverines to shoot pretty regularly from the outside on Saturday.
If they can hit at 40 percent or better—almost 12 percent better than what Syracuse generally allows—they stand a great chance of winning this ballgame.
Michigan Loses If...
It gets into foul trouble.
The Wolverines aren't a deep team, and it shows in their minute distribution.
Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III all play more than 67 percent of the team's available minutes on average, all made possible by the fact that each commits fouls at an exceptionally low rate.
It's a precarious strategy, if only because a couple of fluke calls can completely rearrange John Beilein's personnel equation.
Odds are Syracuse won't draw Michigan into silly fouls. But if it does, the Wolverines are in trouble.
Prediction No. 1: The Game Will Be Played in the 60's
Maybe the biggest misconception about this Wolverines team is that it's a fast-paced offensive juggernaut.
Yes, Michigan is an excellent offensive team.
And yes, the Wolverines are ultra-dangerous in transition.
But there's a difference between playing up-tempo and being transition-oriented. Michigan likes to run when the opportunity presents itself, but the Wolverines are a relatively patient half-court team. In fact, they rank just 200th out of 347 Division I teams in adjusted tempo.
Syracuse has done a good job so far in this tournament keeping opponents out of transition. I think the Orange will do just that against Michigan, resulting in a fairly deliberate half-court game.
Mind you, Michigan is plenty comfortable playing at such a pace. But I do expect a lower point total from the Wolverines than what we've seen so far.
Prediction No. 2: Mitch McGary Will Be Held in Check
Freshman forward Mitch McGary has been the breakout star of the tournament, totaling 70 points in Michigan's four tournament wins despite a season scoring average that still hovers below eight.
And it's not as if McGary, an uber-athletic 4 with menacing potential, is beating up on patsies. The Indiana native dropped 11 on the defensive-minded Florida Gators and 25 on Jeff Withey's Kansas Jayhawks.
Still, I'm not sure he's seen anything quite like Syracuse's defense.
The Orange have five rotation players listed at 6'8" or taller, and their back line is anchored by two shot-swatting savants: Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita.
Post players can have success against Syracuse, but it's usually bigs who have decent range on their jump shot and plus passing ability. Georgetown's Otto Porter Jr. and Marquette's Davante Gardner immediately come to mind.
McGary's game has come a long way since November, but he still isn't skilled enough yet to man the high post against a 2-3 zone and play distributor.
Expect Glenn Robinson III to fill that role for Michigan. And expect McGary to have a fairly quiet evening.
Final Prediction: Michigan Will Win
There isn't much separating these two teams, and I expect a close game.
And assuming my close-game prophecy comes to fruition, I'm taking Michigan under the logic that the team with the superior half-court offense is better suited to win a close game.
If the Wolverines are at full strength by game's end—in other words, if they don't run into foul trouble—their jump shooting and ability to space the floor should prove the difference.