The Wolverines are the lone holdouts in this Final Four. Of the remaining teams, only Michigan is better on the offensive end than it is on defense — primarily relying on a complex scheme of picks and cuts to create space for its talented perimeter players.
So far, it’s worked out brilliantly.
However, as the 35th-ranked team nationally in defensive efficiency, Michigan has shown its vulnerabilities at times this season, even in the tournament. Against a smothering defense like Syracuse in the semifinal, the Wolverines will likely need to perform less like they did against Kansas, which posted a 59.1 effective field goal percentage in a tightly-contested Sweet Sixteen match-up, and more like they did against Florida (42.9 percent).
In fact, four of Michigan’s seven losses this season came when allowing an effective field goal percentage of 50 or more.
Fortunately for coach John Beilein’s team, Syracuse is not as efficient offensively as some of their previous opponents this tournament. Even its coach, Jim Boeheim, said his offense needs to be better in Saturday’s game. Michigan’s defense may not single-handedly win the game, but it needs to play a pivotal role in dictating the ebb and flow of the highly-anticipated semifinal matchup.
How well must Trey Burke shoot in Atlanta?
Barring his captivating second half against Kansas, the one which saved the Wolverines’ season, the All-American sophomore has not shot well during the NCAA tournament. Even including the 23-point outburst and his game-tying 3-pointer that will forever live on in Ann Arbor’s sporting history, Burke, who was named the Associated Press National Player of the Year Thursday afternoon, has made just 22 of his 63 shots in the tourney.
That’s 34.9 percent — more than 10 percentage points below his career average.
But Michigan has won all four games, in part because Burke has spearheaded the nation’s top offense by filling up the stat sheets. He’s logged 31 assists thus far. Though he shot poorly versus the Gators in the Elite Eight, he flirted with a triple-double (15 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) in the blowout.
The balanced Michigan attack is by no means predicated only on Burke’s ability to put the ball in the basket, but it has struggled when his shooting percentage dips into the 30s — the team is just 8-5 this season in such games. Those aren’t wonderful odds to be messing with against Jim Boeheim’s team right now.
In a radio interview the other day, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said that with the way Syracuse is playing zone, any team that beats it will have to knock down eight or more 3-pointers. That’s an interesting benchmark for Michigan to approach the game with.
If Burke is knocking down outside shots (7-of-27 this tournament), the Wolverines become exponentially more difficult to defend, even for the Orange.
“Certainly when you play a zone defense, it’s going to negate isolation. We were able to isolate Trey a lot of times (earlier in the tournament) and put into two men guarding him, what we call a quick man, they’re reacting, trying to fly around the floor, find different people,” Beilein said Thursday. “But, no, we have to change what we do because we’re going to see the zone for 40 minutes.
“When you have a player like Trey Burke, you get the ball in his hands as often as you can. If zone negates that, we’ll just have to do our best.”
Is this the Mitch McGary college basketball can expect from here on out?
Without exaggeration, four of McGary’s five best games in college have come during this tournament. Keep in mind: he was a freshman big man who did not even start for a significant portion of the season, averaging a respectable (albeit unspectacular) 7.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. All of that has changed. Here’s a rundown, in chronological order, of the 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman’s Big Dance:
— (13) South Dakota State: 13 points, nine rebounds, two steals — (5) VCU: 21 points, 14 rebounds — (1) Kansas: 25 points, 14 rebounds, three steals — (3) Florida: 11 points, nine rebounds, five steals, two blocks
In case you were wondering how that all shakes out, if he could have matched his tourney averages of 17.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game during the regular season he would have challenged for First-Team All-American honors — and he’s been doing it against top competition. Those are even better averages than lauded big men Mason Plumlee, Nerlens Noel, Otto Porter and Cody Zeller posted this season.
In truth, at this point in his development, McGary is likely somewhere in between the player he was in the regular season and the one he’s been in the NCAA tournament. Florida coach Billy Donovan, following his team’s 79-59 loss to Michigan last week, said that he believes Syracuse’s zone will limit the effectiveness of McGary, specifically in his proficiency in pick-and-roll situations on offense.
Beilein did not exactly downplay those sentiments during his initial Final Four press conference.
But even if the freshman is not putting up 20 points on the Orange, he can still be effective on the other end of the court. Syracuse nabbed 14.1 offensive rebounds per game this season (tied eighth-best nationally). C.J. Fair & Co. have pulled down 40 offensive boards in the tournament.
If Syracuse is successful in taking away McGary’s offensive game on Saturday, he will need to be equally as successful at limiting the Orange’s second-chance opportunities.
Can John Beilein clear the final two hurdles?
The 35-year coaching veteran’s resume reads like a family tree, from humble 1978 beginnings to the top of his profession. He’s moved from high school coaching to Erie Community College to Nazareth to Le Moyne to Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia to now, finally, Michigan.
This is his first Final Four; his eighth NCAA tournament appearance.
The relative obscurity he’s managed to reside in throughout his successful career (672 career wins) is inconsequential now, however, as he finally has the talent base to take his final two steps into history. With Burke, McGary, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, not to mention sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, Beilein not only has an offensive juggernaut ready to win now, but a young foundation with which to build an annual contender.
The final two steps might feel like leaps — Syracuse and (likely) Louisville are playing their best basketball of the season — but Michigan’s coach has taken the tough path before.