Bring on the Wolverines: SU prepares for Michigan in the Final Four

After running through the East region, the fourth-seeded Orange face the Michigan Wolverines, who won the South region.

It’s been 10 long years since the Orange played for a spot in the championship game. But this week, Syracuse heads to Atlanta for the Final Four. In a season featuring a suspended star player, a late season swoon and a Big East tournament thrill, the Orange is ready to take on the Michigan Wolverines.

Photo: Taylor Baucom
Sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams speaks with the media on April 2.

“Every time you get there its special, but there’s nothing like the first time,” head coach Jim Boeheim said.

The last time the Orange made it to the Final Four, a young freshman named Carmelo Anthony lead them to a National Championship victory over Kansas. This time they’ll have to get past the Wolverines and Naismith Player of the Year candidate, Trey Burke.

Burke played well during this year’s tournament, averaging just over 15 points-per-game while dishing out 7.8 assists and remaining a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe. What separates Burke from the pack has been his ability to hit clutch shots when his team is in need, especially in the Wolverine’s game against Kansas. Burke scored all 23 of his points in the second half and overtime of that game, including a three-pointer that helped push the game into overtime.

Stopping Burke shouldn't necessarily be a problem for the Orange. Syracuse’s dominant defense has allowed an average of 47 points this tournament and has revived the 2-3 zone.

“There’s all this obsession about the zone, we’ve been playing it for 15 years now,” Boeheim said. “Whatever the coach emphasizes in the program…the team’s going to be good at it.”

The zone has played with enthusiasm and has helped close out on shooters and create turnovers at an impressive rate. The Orange has caused 67 turnovers this tournament, which is more than five turnovers higher than its per-game average. This has led to easy transition points and given the sometimes-stagnant offense a much-needed boost.

Syracuse will have a much tougher time forcing turnovers against Michigan. The Wolverines don’t turn the ball over much with one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the nation (1.55), much to the credit of Burke.

It has been a specialty of late for the Orange to stop the opposing team’s best player. They have taken down Cody Zeller, Allen Crabbe, and Vander Blue by keeping their shooting percentages under 33 percent. But SU might have a difficult time with Burke, who has a knack to affect the game even when he isn’t shooting well.

Michigan also relies on secondary players to help push them toward victory, especially the play of freshman center Mitch McGary. McGary has been a stud this tournament, averaging 17.5 points-per-game while shooting 77.3 percent from the field. His 11.5 rebounding average helps keep possessions alive and he has solidified a force in the paint for the Wolverines. The freshman has become something of a hero to Michigan fans as he only started two games during the regular season. McGary isn’t the only player who has stepped up during the tournament. Tim Hardaway Jr. is one of the team’s best isolation players on the team who can score off the dribble and shoot the three-ball. He may be the team’s most versatile scorer next to Burke.

The Wolverines offensive firepower versus the stifling Orange 2-3 zone seems to be the most interesting story, but it would be wrong to fail to mention the Orange’s offensive propensity to get to the line during the tournament. SU has made it to the free throw line at least 19 times during the past four games and had a total of 41 free throws in the game against California. The Wolverines are a team that doesn’t rely on fouling to defend and haven’t had a game in which they’ve taken over 20 free throws. The two opposing dynamics make for a game in which the pace of the game will be a huge giveaway into which team will have control and the greater chance to win.

“He’s one of the best offensive coach’s in the game,” Boeheim said of Michigan coach John Beilein. “He’s won everywhere he’s been.”

The Orange faithful hope Saturday will be different.

Tip-off for the game is at 8:49 p.m.

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