A little less than a month ago, it seemed laughable that either the Syracuse Orange or Michigan Wolverines would be making a trip to Atlanta for the Final Four.
On March 9, Syracuse finished its final Big East regular season with an embarrassing 61-39 loss to Georgetown. It was the Orange's fourth loss in their last five games, a bitter end to what had been such a remarkable rivalry with the Hoyas. Jim Boeheim looked disinterested—retirement rumors running rampant across the nation—and the team's offense looked broken. A disheveled carcass of an attack just waiting for someone to pick it up off the side of the road.
For Michigan, there was no rock-bottom moment—just a never-ending string of calamaties that took the Wolverines from top-ranked team in the country to national title afterthought. Their defense was perhaps the only uglier thing in the nation than Syracuse's offense, giving up 84 points to a Penn State team that ranked 320th in the nation in effective field goal percentage.
Both teams were also easy targets for Upset City, with VCU looking like a strong fifth-seed in the South Region against Michigan and plenty of folks taking 13th-seeded Montana to upset the Orange.
And yet...here these two teams are. Over the course of two weekends, the Orange and Wolverines have re-emerged as national powers, exemplifying their strengths while doing a fantastic job of nipping their weaknesses in the bud. One of these two sides will play the winner of Louisville-Wichita State for a national title, a fact that seemed nearly impossible at the end of the regular season.
With just hours remaining before tip-off, let's take a complete look at Saturday's nightcap and predict a winner for arguably the most unpredictable matchup of the entire tournament.
When: Saturday, April 6, at 8:49 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
Stream: March Madness Live
Keys to Victory
Michigan: Knock Down Outside Shots—Especially in the First Half
As we've all heard about prior to Saturday's contest, the overarching key for Michigan will be solving the Rubik's Cube known as the Syracuse defense. The Orange have spent the entire month of March suffocating opposing offenses with such efficiency on the defensive end that game scores wind up looking like the pre-shot clock era.
In the Elite Eight, Syracuse allowed a meager 39 points to conference foe (for now) Marquette. The Golden Eagles made only 12 field goals in the entire game, shooting a paltry 22.6 percent from the field, including 3-of-24 from beyond the arc.
Every time Marquette was in the half-court offense, Syracuse stymied its attack by cramping the middle of the floor and forcing Eagles shooters—not exactly the best group in the nation—to beat them.
It was remarkably similar to how the Orange defeated top-seeded Indiana in the Sweet 16—and the Hoosiers were the nation's second most efficient offense in the nation this season. Syracuse plays tough against the strengths of its opponent, adjusting its defensive scheme out of the standard 2-3 zone set on nearly every possession.
The only way Michigan is going to be able to open up that zone is by hitting its minuscule holes—most notably behind the three-point arc. Nik Stauskas, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are all plus outside shooters and each have had their moments to shine in March thus far.
With Hardaway and Burke both struggling with their shot against Florida, it was Stauskas who came through in the Elite Eight. The freshman gunner knocked down all six of his three-point attempts and had a 7-of-8 day overall to lead all scorers in the Wolverines' 79-59 victory.
Burke infamously had his moment to shine in the Sweet 16 versus Kansas, where he scored 23 points in the second half and overtime, including his now-famous three pointer in last seconds of regulation. Hardaway has actually regressed as the tournament has gone along, but his 21-point effort in the round of 64 was critical to Michigan overcoming an upset-minded South Dakota State club.
With Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III both looking at a difficult time down low against Rakeem Christmas and C.J. Fair, it will be out to that trio of guards to knock down shots early and spread Syracuse's zone. That's the only way the Wolverines will get spacing, and thus easy buckets down low.
The ability is there. The execution just remains to be seen.
Syracuse: Get Strong Offensive Efforts from James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams
Even if the Orange are able to mitigate Michigan's offensive firepower, they aren't going to hold the Wolverines to 39 points. They aren't even going to hold them to 50. Michigan's offense is running too smoothly at this point to be completely bottled up, even against a team as defensively sound as Syracuse.
And that's fine. Not even Jim Boeheim can expect his defense to allow under 46 points per game for the entire NCAA tournament. The shot clock still does exist, and James Naismith didn't just hang the peach basket yesterday. Even if Syracuse gives an "A" effort on the defensive end, the Orange will probably still have to score somewhere in the mid-60s to pull out the game.
That seems like a pretty easy task on the surface. Of course, that is until one realizes this is the same Syracuse team that finished its regular season by scoring 39 points against Georgetown and shot just 38 percent itself against Marquette in the Elite Eight.
The Orange have struggled all season to create consistent offensive flow, heading into the Final Four ranking 139th in effective field goal percentage while turning the ball over at an unseemly rate as well. There is no way to fix this problem. Syracuse's problems are with its personnel and the lack of shooting prowess most of its rotation players possess—not something Boeheim can fix with a scheme adjustment.
The only way Syracuse can excel offensively is if its two best perimeter weapons get the job done.
Carter-Williams has spent his NCAA tournament vacillating between two roles, the scorer and the distributor. He put together a tour-de-force as a scorer against Indiana with 24 points, and his all-around flashes were apparent in the low-scoring Marquette affair. What the Orange will need from him on Saturday remains unclear and will depend on how his teammates look, but Michigan's inconsistencies on the defensive end bode well for Carter-Williams being able to pick his spots.
Southerland's needed contributions are pretty simple: He needs to shoot the rock—and do so at a high level. The senior forward carried Syracuse through the Big East tournament with his long-range ability, knocking down 19 shots from distance, but Southerland hasn't quite found his form in the Big Dance. The secondary options shooting-wise for Syracuse are cringe-worthy, so Southerland's excellence is paramount.
If Carter-Williams and Southerland phone in poor performances on Saturday, it will prove to be a fatal blow for Syracuse.
Though expecting either Syracuse or Michigan to fail miserably at this point is a fool's errand, neither team expects to walk away satisfied with its efforts. These two are almost perfect muses for one another, a contrast of styles so stark that it's arguably the tournament's most intriguing matchup yet.
Neither side has been especially consistent this season, so it's not like one could even point to that as a barometer of prediction. The Orange and Wolverines are two good but flawed teams that should produce a thrilling nightcap to Saturday's festivities.
But where Syracuse has spent its entire season looking for formulas to exemplify its strengths and mitigate its deficiencies, Michigan looks like a team that's finally put it all together—like the Wolverines squad that was No. 1 in the country midseason, where every player on the floor can adjust on the fly to ascend to unforeseen heights.
Syracuse's defensive pressure in the half-court will stymie Michigan's rip-roaring offensive flow; just not enough. Look for Stauskas to especially be involved early in the contest, with Burke taking over in the final minutes to put the game away.
Score Prediction: Michigan 68, Syracuse 62
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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