Heading into Michigan's Final Four matchup against Syracuse on Saturday, much of the focus will be placed on the Wolverines' electric backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.—and for good reason.
But the key to the game will be the play of a freshman forward.
Mitch McGary, who will be making just his seventh career start on Saturday, has the potential to be a difference-maker against the Orange.
The No. 28 recruit in the 2012 class has simply gone off in the NCAA tournament this year. In four games, he's averaged 17.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.8 steals and one block (all team highs in the tournament) while going 33-of-45 from the floor. That's despite facing Kansas and Florida in the NCAA tournament.
In fact, McGary had his best game against Kansas, posting 25 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and one block in the Sweet 16 matchup. That was despite going up against 7'0" center Jeff Withey, who averaged 13.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 blocks this season and is widely expected to be a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
Of course, as Bleacher Report's Avi Wolfman-Arent noted, the Orange have five rotation players listed at 6'8" or taller, including shot-blockers Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita (a combined 3.0 blocks in 37.6 minutes per game).
That makes it considerably tougher for McGary to score in the paint and crash the glass.
McGary's rebounding ability may be the most important factor in the game.
The Orange are not a very good shooting team (ranked 123rd in the nation in field-goal percentage, via TeamRankings.com), but their offensive rebounding ability (12th in offensive rebounding rate) leads to plenty of second-chance points (13th in extra scoring chances per game).
In that sense, McGary's defensive rebounding ability in particular is extremely important. If the 6'10", 250-pound big man makes it tough for the Orange to rack up offensive rebounds, their offensive efficiency goes way down.
McGary could further help Michigan's cause by capitalizing when Burke dishes off to him while penetrating the lane. He did so against Withey and Kansas.
We shall see if he's effective against Syracuse's swarming defense.
You can't deny the impact McGary has had for the Wolverines in the short period of time he's been a starter. His impact against Syracuse in the Final Four will go a long way in determining if Michigan advances to its first national championship game since 1993.
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