TREY BURKE: It is always a big advantage to have the best player on the floor, especially if he’s going to have the ball in his hands. Burke is a consensus first-team All-America and a contender for nearly every player of the year award. The only reason he probably won’t be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft is that teams are nervous about his height — he’s 6’0″ on a good day.
But on a college floor, he can do everything Michigan needs. His shooting range, demonstrated by his 30-footer to send the Kansas game into overtime, means opponents have to start guarding him behind the 3-point line. He has the speed to beat most defenders off the dribble, and once he gets into the paint, he can finish at the rim or find an open shooter as college basketball’s best passer.
Burke also makes plays on the other end of the floor. He clinched Michigan’s home win over Michigan State by stealing the ball from Keith Appling and scoring the game-winning basket, and clinched the Ohio State game with a last-second block on Aaron Craft.
MITCH McGARY: In 1989, Michigan won the national championship with Steve Fisher coaching the team for the first time in the opening game of the NCAA tournament. This year, they’ve made it to the Final Four with McGary starting for the first time in Michigan’s tournament opener.
McGary has posted two double-doubles in four games, and missed the other two by one rebound each. He dominated smaller opposition in the first weekend of the tournament, then put up 25 points and 14 rebounds against seven-footer Jeff Withey in the overtime win against Kansas. Against Florida’s Patric Young and Erik Murphy, he nearly had a double-double in the first half as Michigan jumped out to a 24-point lead.
McGary has been especially deadly while running pick-and-rolls with Burke. The more he has scored, the more teams have been forced to run people at him, allowing Burke to find one of Michigan’s 3-point shooters for an open look.
JOHN BEILEIN: After 38 years of coaching at every level from high school to the Final Four, there aren’t a lot of schemes that Beilein hasn’t seen. He had Michigan ready to tear apart VCU’s Havoc press in less than 48 hours, and came up with a game plan for Florida’s highly rated defense just as quickly.
This time, he has almost a full week to prepare the Wolverines for the opponent he knows better than any other. Beilein has been learning Jim Boeheim’s style and techniques for 30 years, dating back to his days at Division II Le Moyne, conveniently located in Syracuse. Boeheim helped Beilein get his first Division I job, long before they matched up in the Big East when Beilein was at West Virginia.
THREE REASONS MICHIGAN WON’T WIN INEXPERIENCE: Michigan has a younger team than they did the last time they advanced to the Final Four — and that was the Fab Five’s sophomore year. The Wolverines start three freshmen — McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas — along with a sophomore (Burke) and junior Tim Hardaway, Jr.
Robinson III and Stauskas hit the “freshman wall” hard during the Big Ten season, with both struggling to hit the 3-point shots that had made them so dangerous. Both have bounced back in the tournament, but they and McGary have never played at this level for so long.
Michigan’s other players don’t have a lot of tournament experience, either. Burke lost his only game last year — the first round upset by Ohio — leaving Hardaway’s win over Texas as a freshman as the rotation’s sole win before this season’s run.
DEFENSE: Even with McGary adding size and agility in the post, the Wolverines don’t have the kind of shutdown defense that tends to win NCAA titles. Michigan doesn’t block shots or force steals, and almost never put the opposition on the line.
That’s worked perfectly outside the Big Ten — Michigan is 16-0 in non-conference games — but it can be a liability against physical teams. Even lowly Penn State was able to light up Michigan’s defense in an embarrassing late-season loss.
JIM BOEHEIM: Beilein’s been watching Boeheim for 30 years, but the reverse is equally true. Beilien still remembers coaching at Le Moyne and seeing Boeheim in the stands, just watching a basketball game in a rare bit of spare time.
The pair have been friends for decades and have the greatest respect for the other’s coaching abilities. They also know every trick the other one has, so while Beilein is using his week to prepare the Wolverines for the Syracuse zone, Boeheim is going to be working on a few twists that the Orange can use against Michigan.