Two teams that were never supposed to reach the 2013 Final Four are both in Atlanta on Saturday, preparing to battle it out for a spot in the NCAA championship game on Monday.
Between South region champion and No. 4 seed Michigan and East region champion and No. 4 seed Syracuse, expectations for a Final Four berth weren't very high.
Michigan faltered after a hot start, playing so inconsistently down the stretch in the Big Ten that it only earned the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament. The Wolverines lost to Wisconsin, and despite have some of the most talented players in the country, only finished as one of the tournament's top 16 teams heading into the Big Dance.
Similarly, Syracuse has had an up-and-down season. Highlighted by knocking off then No. 1 Louisville on the road and lowlighted by an embarrassment of a performance (39 points) against Georgetown, the Orange did enough to reach the Big East championship before losing out to those same Cardinals.
Both squads were like completely different teams with the start of March Madness.
Michigan has been extremely balanced on offense, tough on defense and the insertion of forward Mitch McGary into the starting lineup has been the shrewdest coaching move of the entire tournament by head coach John Beilein.
Jim Boeheim's team is in classic form, employing a 2-3 zone defense that has more length and athleticism than maybe ever before. The Orange have been the best defensive team so far in the tournament, and as we all know—defense wins championships.
Syracuse and Michigan will clash in the late game on Saturday night. Check out the sections below for a last-minute look at what to watch for in this epic Final Four battle of storied programs.
What: No. 4 Michigan (South Region) vs. No. 4 Syracuse (East Region)
When: Saturday, Apr. 6, at 8:49 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome; Atlanta, Geo.
Live Stream: March Madness Live
Betting Line: Michigan -2 (via SportsBook)
Three-point shooting could very well decide this game.
Syracuse has been outstanding at defending the three-point line so far in March, allowing opponents to connect on just 15 outside shots in four games for a low-grade percent of just 17.2. While Syracuse has defended the outside well, it hasn't faced a team like Michigan yet, either.
The Wolverines have been one of the best teams from the outside in March. Shooting 40.2 percent as a team from downtown, it seems each of Michigan's starting guards (Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas) have had a productive game from deep.
Against Florida in the Elite Eight it was Stauskas, who finished 6-of-6 from deep and reminded us all that the "Big 3" isn't the only problem with finding a way to defend Michigan's current lineup.
Another big factor will be Syracuse's ability to score.
Better yet, not turn the ball over and find a way to get senior forward James Southerland going early. When Southerland is on from deep, the Orange generally play better as a team. He won't get open looks if Michael Carter-Williams—the East Region's Most Outstanding Player—doesn't find a way to penetrate into the middle of the Michigan defense.
MCW and Brandon Triche will have a tall task on both ends. Triche has played well so far this tournament, but can also shoot the Orange out of games at times when the offense is otherwise stalling. Look for Boeheim to ride the hot hand and pull the ball in MCW's clutches early and often when the Orange need a basket.
Per the usual in this tournament, the play of McGary will also have heightened focus. The freshman forward has tournament averages of 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds so far, and has gone toe-to-toe with several of college basketball's best bigs (Jeff Withey, Erik Murphy). In doing so, he's on the short list of high-risers in the 2014 NBA draft.
Focusing on Saturday, it will be interesting to see how McGary attacks the Syracuse zone. Rebounding is a noted weakness of the Orange's 2-3 zone attack, and McGary has been a workhorse in getting to the glass so far in March. Something has to give on that front.
Michigan has an interesting choice to make on defense.
Where they hide Stauskas on defense could decide the game, particularly because the point guard battle of Burke and Carter-Williams is likely set in stone and Robinson III will likely be dispatched to contend with the length of C.J. Fair.
That leaves Stauskas and Hardaway between Triche and Southerland. Triche went to town against the physically outmatched Kevin Farrell in Syracuse's win over No. 1 Indiana, and he could have a similar field day off the dribble against Michigan's three-point ace. If the Wolverines try to hide him on Southerland, it puts added pressure on the senior forward to exploit that matchup.
The offensive production against Stauskas and Spike Albrecht will determine if Syracuse is in this game late.
Similarly, the matchup between Burke and MCW should be the best of the afternoon. Two guys that play the same position and are both headed for the NBA lottery have much more than just championship aspirations on the line on Saturday night—they are likely playing each other for a draft spot in June.
Look for Michigan's inside game to help decide this one early. If Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. can get some quick baskets in transition while McGary finds a way to sink his teeth in the middle of the Orange defense, then that will force the zone to condense more inside.
Who moves on?
That gives spaces for the shooters to operate on the outside, and then all bets are off for Syracuse's vaunted zone. I think this game is a toss-up heading into Saturday's night's game, in large part because the offensive/defensive clash is one of the hardest to predict in March.
That being said, I'll give the edge to the Wolverines in what could be the most thrilling game of the tournament so far.
Michigan 78, Syracuse 71
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