Michigan Basketball: 3 Biggest Concerns for Final Four Matchup with Syracuse
John Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and the Michigan Wolverines face their biggest challenge of the NCAA tournament Saturday in Atlanta, Ga. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is among their biggest concerns in this Final Four matchup.
The Maize and Blue look to be the first team in the postseason to dismantle Orange head coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense. Michigan head coach John Beilein also looks to improve his 0-9 record vs. Boeheim—a meaningless stat considering none of those nine teams had Burke.
Tim Hardaway Jr. remembers the last time these two teams met. ‘Cuse last met the Wolverines on November 26, 2010—edging them out 53-50. The Orange shouldn’t expect to hold Hardaway Jr. to just eight points this time, though.
Michigan has proved that, no matter what, it can’t be counted out. Burke and company trailed top-seed Kansas by as many as 14 points, but managed to come back and pull off an overtime victory. Burke’s heroics and the team’s cohesive performance as a whole carried Michigan the furthest it’s been since the Fab Five.
Four teams remain. Let’s take a look at Michigan’s three biggest concerns as they take on Syracuse for an opportunity to play either Louisville or Wichita State in the championship.
James Southerland’s Shooting
James Southerland puts up almost 60 percent of his shots from the perimeter—40 percent of which go in. His status as ‘Cuse’s only consistent three-point shooter can’t let them slack when defending him beyond the arc. At 6’8”, he’s going to be tough for a slightly smaller Michigan team to defend.
The silver lining for the Wolverines is Southerland’s weakness in creating his own offense. The overwhelming majority of his shots made are assisted on, so defending the passing lanes to Southerland up top is a good option.
Another way to go is forcing him into two-point range. It’s at that point that Southerland's stats create the offense for ‘Cuse. If he goes up with a shot then, chances are it will miss.
The Orange’s Length
Michigan struggled with its defense in the paint throughout the regular season. McGary coming off the bench has helped in that regard by giving the team a big-man presence down low. His 6.2 rebounds per game lead the team, with Glenn Robinson III being the next-best with 5.5 per game.
Even so, Syracuse has plenty of players capable of out-rebounding the Wolverines—namely C.J. Fair, who averages seven rebounds per game. ‘Cuse isn’t on the same offensive level as the Maize and Blue, but their ability to rebound could make the difference in Saturday’s game.
At 6’10”, Keita is a big threat down low for the Orange. He’s great when cutting to the basket and, unless McGary or Jon Horford put the body on him, he’ll power his way right through the lane. What’s more is that he’ll nab offensive rebounds all night if he can.
Rakeem Christmas is ‘Cuse’s best shot blocker and one of the best in the nation. The 6’9”, 242-pound center is going to make it tough for Burke to drive to the net or find McGary open. He’s foul-prone, but the Wolverines can’t hope that’ll minimize the time he’s on the court.
Fortunately, Michigan plays bigger than they are. At 6’6”, Hardaway Jr. isn’t the smallest player on the court, nor is he the biggest. Regardless, he still gets up and grabs offensive boards.
Syracuse’s 2-3 Zone
The 2-3 zone isn’t tough to beat on paper.
On the court, it’s a whole new story. Syracuse is so skilled at adapting their zone defense to the opponent.
For example, Marquette tended to get a player around the free-throw line that would pass down low to set up a layup. Syracuse responded by keeping the zone within the arc and cutting off the passing lane down low.
In their Sweet 16 game vs. Indiana, the Orange couldn’t afford to keep the defense confined within the arc and allow Victor Oladipo to shoot for three. At the same time, they had to prevent Cody Zeller from getting the ball and driving to the basket.
Boeheim is good at scouting the other team’s players and thinking carefully about defensive matchups. Baye Keita was put down low to defend Zeller when they played Indiana because he’d actively get between the ball and Zeller.
‘Cuse could set up the 2-3 zone in a way that defends Burke up high and prevents him from driving to the hoop while also trying to cut off Mitch McGary down low. To counter, the Maize and Blue will need to continue changing their game to combat the defense—just like they have been all postseason.
The 6’10” McGary isn’t stationary in the paint. He runs around and sets screens up high. Combine that with Burke’s knack for taking advantage of lack of pressure on teammates and the Wolverines might be able to continuously overcome the ever-changing Orange zone defense.