It’s no secret that the Syracuse Orange are on a roll, especially on defense. They have held their opponents to a paltry 158 points throughout their first four games in the NCAA Tournament, an all-time low since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They shut down the Indiana Hoosiers last week, holding the one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country to a mere 50 points, and followed that up by holding Big East rival Marquette to 39 – the fewest points a team has scored in a regional final in the shot clock era.
I remind you of these statistics so I can tell you this: Michigan may be the toughest matchup SU faces all season. The 30-7 Wolverines score a shade over 75 points per game, shooting at a very efficient 48.4% from the floor. That’s impressive considering a good third of their points come from outside of the paint. They can score in a variety of ways, but like to show off their athleticism and get out on the break whenever possible. That’s advantageous against Syracuse’s famous zone defense. Michigan is not a great rebounding team, averaging only 35 a game, but they do protect the ball well and were 15th in the nation in turnovers committed per game.
The Orange and Wolverines present such a fantastic matchup that I thought it would be interesting to break them down by position, and see how the players stack up head-to-head. Here’s what I found:
Michigan’s Trey Burke is the Wooden Award winner (basketball's version of the Heisman Trophy), the AP national player of the year and a first team All-American, and has been one of the breakout stars of this year’s tournament. At 6’0” he is not much taller than the Hobbits Indiana rolled out in its backcourt last week, but he is much more athletic and creative with the ball and has shooting range out to 25 feet. He is averaging 18.8 points and 6.8 assists per game this season, the assist total good for 11th nationally. He is also responsible for one of the more exciting shots in this year’s tournament when he hit about a 30 foot three-pointer vs. Kansas to send the game into overtime and eventually steal the win for UM.
Due to SU’s zone defense the Wolverines and Orange don’t match up one-on-one at both ends of the floor, but Burke’s counterpart on SU is of course budding star PG Michael Carter-Williams. This is a battle of two of the best passing guards in the nation, with MCW’s 7.7 APG besting Burke’s 6.8. MCW has also come into his own as a scorer late in the year, bringing his average to 12.1 PPG, and adds a five rebounds per game edge that the smaller Burke can’t match. This duel will be the focal point of the game, and the PG who can score efficiently while creating opportunities for his teammates will likely come out on top.
The son of the former Heat and Warriors guard, Tim Hardaway Jr. is actually taller than Brandon Triche at 6’6” and one of the most athletic players in the game. He is a typical slasher/scorer who gets his points in transition or driving to the rim, but also shot a respectable 38.7% from downtown on five attempts per game. He is also a good rebounding guard, actually outrebounding Triche on a per-game basis 4.6 to 3.4.
We know what Triche is all about. A slashing guard who has shown the ability to excel in traffic, I feel Triche’s biggest weakness is his lack of drive to take over games with his all-around abilities. He’s second on the team in scoring (13.7), but his three-point shooting has been a disappointing 29% this season and he should only take them when he is red hot, like in his career-high game at Seton Hall. However, his defense has been rock-solid all year, and he dishes out 3.5 assists per game, so he makes up for his lack of long-range shooting in other ways.
Since James Southerland was inserted into the starting lineup at the end of the regular season the Orange are 8-2, their only losses at Georgetown and vs. Louisville in the Big East Tournament. This lineup change is perhaps the biggest factor contributing to SU’s incredible turnaround. Surprisingly, Southerland does not have the best three-point percentage on the Orange (40.3%), that goes to C.J. Fair at 47.5%. But no Orange shooter is as feared as Southerland, as his record exploits at Arkansas or in the BET demonstrate. Michigan’s Nik Stauskas could be matched up with Southerland, and while he is no comparison to James athletically he does pose a problem for the Orange defense. He is a deadeye shooter, leading a talented Wolverines team in three-point shooting at 44.9% and also hitting his free throws at an 85% clip. SU’s ability to rotate out to Stauskas will be a major point of emphasis as Burke and Hardaway try to penetrate the zone and find their teammates for open perimeter looks.
Though the forward spots are fairly interchangeable for the Orange, for the purposes of this discussion I have Southerland slotted at SF and Fair at PF. Either way, I expect the More physical Glenn Robinson III (son of the former Purdue and NBA star) to try to cover Fair when Michigan plays man-to-man. I’m not sure who Fair will guard when SU switches to man.
Anyway, the freshman Robinson is not quite as tall or powerful as his father, but like Burke and Hardaway he makes up for it with excellent quickness and leaping ability. He is not a major threat from the perimeter, preferring to get into the teeth of the defense where he shoots an impressive 56.6% from the field. He is also a decent rebounder at 5.5 a game, but Fair gets 6.9 per contest so SU has the advantage there. Fair was (in my opinion) the team’s MVP for the regular season. When everyone else was up and down from game to game Fair was the steady hand, and showed his versatility by leading the team in scoring (14.3 PPG), rebounding (6.9), and three point percentage (47.5%), as well as placing second in free throw percentage and third in blocks and field goal percentage.
Freshman Mitch McGary started to assert himself for the Wolverines midway through the season, and has come into his own as a screener, rebounder, and scorer near the basket. He shoots a very efficient 60.5% from the floor, most of those buckets coming on offensive rebounds, rolls to the rim, and the occasional post-up. He is not a threat to score from the outside at all, and is an abysmal free throw shooter at just over 45%.
On the flip side, the struggles of Rakeem Christmas have been well-documented all season long. He remains the nominal starter, but backup Baye Keita is playing the majority of minutes in the postseason and has seen a surge in his stats as a result. While Rakeem is a capable center in the middle of the 2-3, Baye has excelled on defense and is one of the key cogs in SU’s devastating shutdown zone. Baye’s ability to move his feet from block to block and baseline to foul line allow his teammates to remain vigilant on the perimeter and force the opposition into bad shots. This in turn triggers the Orange break and allows the offense to score in transition where they are most comfortable.
This has been covered extensively elsewhere, but Jim Boeheim is 9-0 all-time vs. John Beilein during their previous matchups when Beilein was with West Virginia and Richmond. Of course Beilein also coached at Le Moyne and Canisius early in his career, so he and Boeheim know each other well. Beilein will try to push the tempo and get his players to run the floor and score before the zone can set up, for Michigan is one of the few teams in the country that is as (or perhaps more) athletic as SU. Boeheim will be more than happy to slow the game down and muck things up, for defense has carried the Orange this far and it’s a safe bet that defense will win or lose them the championship from here on out.
I view Michigan as a more athletic version of Indiana. While the Hoosiers were more accomplished shooters, the Wolverines will look to attack in transition and off the dribble more often. I foresee a close game, with Syracuse moving onto Monday night's championship game by a score of around 68-62.