If Michigan and Syracuse have taught us anything this season, it's that it is not how you finish your season, but how you start it.
If that sounds odd, it's because it is. But it checks out.
On the night of January 30, the Wolverines were fresh off a win over Northwestern and sitting at 20-1. The Orange had just fallen victim to a classic Villanova upset, but they were still 18-2.
At that point, both looked like legitimate Final Four squads.
But then both unraveled. Michigan lost three of its next four, and it would eventually enter the tournament at 6-6 in its last 12 including a loss to mighty Penn State. Syracuse wasn't the same, either, going 8-8 down the stretch—and it needed three Big East tourney wins to get to that mark.
Nevertheless, here we are, in college basketball's promised land with two once-reeling squads pitted against each other, both now playing their best basketball of the season.
Therein lies the unpredictable season in a nutshell.
Note: All advanced statistics come from BBState.com, unless noted otherwise.
When: Saturday, April 6, at 8:49 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Spread Info: Michigan (-2.5), Over/Under: 130, via Vegas Insider
Michigan Injury Report (via USA Today)
None to report
Syracuse Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Michael Carter-Williams, Ankle, Probable
What They're Saying
Both teams are quite different now, but ESPN's Fran Fraschilla notes a recent matchup could signal Michigan's strategy against Syracuse's ferocious 2-3 zone:
53-51 Syracuse win over Michigan game in Legends in 2010 will give you good idea of what UM vs. 2-3 will do: Hardaway in high post a lot.— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) April 4, 2013
This is one of the most compelling aspects of the game. The middle of that zone is a weak spot, but it usually takes a big man with vision and a jump shot to exploit it. Mitch McGary has been nearly unstoppable during the tourney, but he isn't that.
Fortunately, the Wolverines have some talented guards with size who can play that role. If Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn't step in the middle, look for Glenn Robinson III to do so.
Of course, for as stout as the Orange have been on defense, it has at times been just as difficult for them to get their own points. As ESPN's Eamonn Brennan points out, it's best for Jim Boeheim's athletes to get out in transition:
The Orange weren't exactly the fastest team in the country this season -- they ranked No. 244 in Pomeroy's adjusted tempo -- but you really do not want to see them on the break. According to Synergy scouting data, Syracuse averaged 1.12 points per trip in transition this season, disproportionately more than in the half court.
Here's the problem for Michigan. In addition to limiting turnovers—which it does very well—the best way to stop transition buckets is to stay away from the offensive glass and simply get back on defense.
The only problem is that the Wolverines have one of the best rebounders in America in Mitch McGary.
Do they let him crash the glass (with that added bonus that it is difficult to rebound out of a zone), or do they concentrate on getting set up on defense and not letting Michael Carter-Williams get a head of steam?
Michigan Player to Watch: Nik Stauskas
Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn introduces us to the "Stauskas Corner":
The sharpshooting freshman who lit up Florida to the tune of 6-of-6 three-point shooting and 22 points clearly has a favorite spot on the court: the left corner.
If anyone is going to limit that spot, it's Syracuse.
Not only are the Orange holding teams to 15.2 percent (!) shooting from beyond the arc in the tournament, but they have a long athlete named C.J. Fair residing in the Stauskas Corner.
On one play in the Elite Eight, the 6'8" Fair seemed too far under the basket, but recovered staggeringly quickly to block a Marquette three in that corner, leading to memories of Hakim Warrick. Stauskas is crucial to Michigan's offensive attack, and it will be intriguing to see if he can find any open looks in his favorite spot.
Syracuse Player to Watch: Michael Carter-Williams
Carter-Williams can be enigmatic, but I'll take an enigma that reminds me of Penny Hardaway any day of the week.
The 6'6" point guard with unreal vision was impossible to figure out during the regular season. He would follow up a no-look, jaw-droppoing assist with a boneheaded turnover or an ill-advised three. He matched 7.4 flashy assists per game with 3.4 turnovers and under 30 percent three-point shooting.
In four tournament wins, however, the long, rangy sophomore has seemingly turned a corner, averaging 13 points and 4.5 assists. While that second number is down from his season average, his turnovers are constantly decreasing (2.75) and he has attempted just seven three-pointers (making four of them).
When Carter-Williams is in controlled attack mode, the Orange are difficult to stop.
Throw in his ability to cause havoc at the top of the zone (2.8 steals per game) and length to bother Trey Burke, and you have unquestionably Syracuse's most crucial player.
Who ya got?
Syracuse's ability on the offensive end—especially against Michigan's suddenly improved defense—scares me, but that 2-3 zone is suffocating and has the tools to slow down Burke, Stauskas and McGary, three of the Wolverines' most important offensive weapons.
Syracuse 62, Michigan 60
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