Before the Syracuse Orange and Michigan Wolverines do battle in the Georgia Dome on Saturday, both fanbases need to know what they're getting themselves into. And so, myself and Zach Travis over at Michigan blog Maize N Brew did a little email Q&A to find out the particulars about the other squad, what to expect and how to beat one another. Part I of the exchange is below and you'll be able to find Part II over there.
MnB - The final horn had barely sounded on Sunday and questions were already swirling about how Michigan's offense would deal with the Syracuse 2-3 zone. For the uninitiated (i.e. the casual Big Ten fan), talk a little bit about Jim Boeheim's zone scheme and what makes it so brutally effective.
TNIAAM - The truth is, the zone is always only as effective as the players in it. We've been having some fun with people talking about the zone as if it's penetrable to the point where no one can beat us. What's actually happening is these guys have started playing up to their potential at the perfect time. What makes it so brutal is the way that the guards up top are so long and so quick, they're able to cover a massive amount of ground, cutting off your shot selection and wreaking havoc on the passing lanes. The wings usually have the ends of the court smothered and the big man tries to stay between anyone and the basket. And if you do get the ball inside, you've got about one second before someone else traps you. If you're not moving the ball constantly and trying to create opportunities for open shots, you're gonna get in trouble.
So while you guys are hearing about our defense, we're hearing all about your offense. The best way to beat Syracuse is to shoot the lights out from three and slow the game down. Does that sound like something Michigan can do?
MnB - Yes and no.
Michigan can definitely get hot from outside, but the Wolverines are much more of a streak shooting team than many fans would like to admit. Players like Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Glenn Robinson III are all very good shooters from outside, but all three have at least one really poor shooting night to their name in the last four games alone. Stauskas is the perfect example. Against Florida he was lights out, and largely the reason Michigan was able to build such a strong lead early. In the four games before that he was just 2/16 from three. Even Burke is prone to dry spells, and lately he seems content to get his three point shot by simply shooting over a defender after freezing him with a dribble move. Against the lengthy backcourt of Syracuse I doubt this works very well, and it will lead to a few empty possessions after quick shots. So Michigan has the weapons to shoot over the zone, but there is a pretty good chance that only two of the four primary outside shooters is hitting. If it is worse than that, Michigan doesn't have much chance. If it is better, Syracuse may not be able to stick with the zone.
As for slowing the game down, after the last four games I'm not sure Michigan would even want to do that. The Wolverines have been phenomenal in transition, and the improvement in Michigan's defense and rebounding has given the team a lot of opportunities to push the ball and get quick baskets. However, when Michigan does slow things down it is incredible adept at guarding possessions and avoiding turnovers. There isn't a team with a better turnover rate in the nation than Michigan with 14.5%. I ultimately think ball control is the underrated storyline in this match-up. Everyone loves to talk about shooting, but if Michigan can avoid turnovers and turn possessions into shots, the Wolverines will put points up just on the basis of the team's offensive skill level, not to mention Mitch McGary's penchant for offensive rebounding.
Which leads to my next question. Syracuse's offense has been in a bit of a lull lately. Other than the Montana game to open the tournament, the team has played a few games in a row in which its offensive output has hovered just around one point per possession. What makes the Syracuse offense tick, and why has it regressed over the past couple weeks?
TNIAAM - What makes Syracuse's tick is Michael Carter-Williams. When he's surveying the court and dishing out assists, the offense hums about as well as it has in years. When he's in his own head and thinking shot-first, that's usually when we get into trouble (though to be fair, that's kinda how we beat Indiana).
Syracuse's offense relies mostly on four guys. Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche, C.J. Fair and James Southerland. Carter-Williams is the engine. Triche is more of a prototype shooting guard and has a tendency to either make clutch plays or disappear and do nothing in between. Fair is Mr. Consistency. There's a good chance you're going to see at some point in the game that Fair has 14 points and 8 rebounds and you're not quite sure how he did it. And as for Southerland, he's Mr. Big Shot. If he gets streaky from outside, look out. We've won games on his three-point shooting alone.
As for the big men, we kinda consider their offense to be gravy. Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita have taken turns scoring in batches but for the most part they're more valuable for their intangibles and defense. Freshman Jerami Grant has started coming out of his shell a little bit so you might want to keep an eye on him as a C.J. Fair-lite.
The offense in general has been a bit up and down because so are the players in it. We're a very streaky team in general. Someone is going to score 24 points but you never quite know which guy it's going to be. And chances are the guy who scored 20 last time will score 7 this time. Consistency has been an issue across the board for the Orange and it's just part of the way they play.
John Beilen has done a pretty remarkable job in his time at Michigan. Is this what you were expecting out of the former LeMoyne coach? Do Michigan fans see the Final Four as a place their program should be (as it was in the early 90's)?
MnB - At this point I think most Michigan fans are so thrilled to be back here after all this time that I doubt John Beilein will have to pay for a drink for a long time (if I had to guess I'd say he is an iced tea man) .
However, Michigan isn't that far removed -- just a few weeks actually -- from a poor stretch of games that saw a few fans start to question Beilein's coaching chops. I spent quite a bit of time defending him in comment sections (cue the "someone is wrong on the internet" XKCD comic), for the very reason that his transformation of Michigan has been huge, and that criticism of a month long stretch of a brutal conference season was shortsighted at best.
Michigan under Beilein has done a phenomenal job identifying talent and developing it. You could go down the list of Beilein recruits and more often than not you'll find a guy that was identified early in the process when he was still well under the radar and either blew up toward the end of his recruitment (GRIII, McGary) or after he got on campus (Burke, Hardaway Jr., Stauskas). Also, look at the contributions Michigan has gotten from un-ranked recruits turned important role players such as Jordan Morgan, Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and this year with Spike Albrecht.
I was lucky enough to see a coaching clinic a few years ago where Beilein gave a presentation along with a few other D-I coaches. He not only blew me away, but did the same for the other older coaches I was there with (who, being MSU fans weren't predisposed to like him). He has a remarkable understanding of the game and in an hour watching him go over just his philosophy and practice drills for ball control you realize just how thoroughly in control of the game he is able to be because he teaches so well in practice. His players become extensions of him on the court, and he maximizes there talent in a remarkable way.
When you pair that kind of player development and coaching ability with the massive facility upgrades to the Crisler Center (which looks like a completely different building now) and the addition of a multi-million dollar practice facility, Michigan now has the kinds of advantages that few programs in the nation can match, as well as the ability to draw high profile recruits.
Of course, this is college basketball, so this same Michigan team can under-perform for the last dozen games of its conference season, give Penn State its first conference win of the year, and miss out on a chance to win a share of the regular season title at home in the final game of the year. Michigan plays in a conference every bit as tough as the Big East and a Final-Four-or-bust mentality is reserved for a handful of elite programs (Duke, UNC, Kentucky, MSU).
Michigan isn't there yet, but I think at this point the expectation should be for Michigan to be in contention for a Big Ten title more often than not and be a constant presence in the NCAA tournament. After the last couple decades of Michigan basketball, I couldn't be happier with the trajectory of the program.
Check out Part II of this exchange over at Maize N Brew.