Big Ten Geeks: Our Michigan vs. Syracuse preview

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Big Ten Geeks: Our Michigan vs. Syracuse preview

After nearly five months of basketball, we’re now down to the Final Four, with Michigan the lone Big Ten representative. Needless to say, a national title for the Wolverines would provide a nice boost for the conference’s reputation, as banners carry more lasting relevance than computer ratings that have pegged the Big Ten as the nation’s best conference for three years running. Rightly or wrongly, postseason success trumps all else.

With that in mind, what are Michigan’s chances Saturday night against Syracuse? KenPom projects the game as a virtual toss-up, with the Wolverines favored by a 67-66 score in 63 possessions. Personally, I don’t believe Syracuse will be able to score over a point per trip. Sure, Michigan’s defense has been permissive at times, but it has tightened up in tournament play, and the Orange just aren’t a great offensive team.

Offensive rebounding is the only area in which Syracuse is dangerous, and the Wolverines have been outstanding on the glass during Mitch McGary’s beast mode postseason. Without second chances, the Orange are quite ordinary on offense, so I feel Michigan will keep them under a point per trip.

If that analysis is correct, the outcome of the game will then hinge on the Wolverines’ ability to score on the suddenly daunting Syracuse zone. I say “suddenly” because, prior to the NCAA tournament, this was looking like a bit of a down year for Jim Boeheim’s patented defense. In Big East play, the Orange finished just fifth in defensive efficiency, which is about as bad as it gets for a Boeheim defense in the tempo-free era (see table at right). Syracuse still had a good defense, but there was no indication that it was the type of defense that could carry a team to the Final Four.

Season

Defensive Efficiency

Big East Rank

2013

0.97

5

2012

0.94

1

2011

0.99

5

2010

0.99

1

2009

1.02

6

2008

1.02

6

2007

0.98

3

2006

1.08

13

2005

1.03

4

2004

1.00

6

2003

0.98

3

In NCAA tournament play, that has changed. The Orange dispatched two overmatched teams in Montana and California, then the 2-3 zone held two good offenses (Indiana and Marquette) to their lowest outputs of the season. Excluding the romp over Montana, the Orange are scoring just 0.97 points per trip in the tournament. Make no mistake, defense is the reason Syracuse is here.

So, how do you score on Syracuse? Shooting well is an obvious answer, and it’s certainly one of the correct ones. The only team to shoot well (50 eFG percentage or better) against Syracuse and still fail to break a point per trip was Princeton, and that’s only because the Tigers turned it over on nearly 40 percent of their possessions.

So, shooting well is one avenue, but what if the shots aren’t falling? Is Michigan doomed to playing the three-point lottery? Not necessarily. Syracuse’s zone is susceptible to teams that are able to maximize their opportunities, through either a low turnover rate or a high offensive rebounding rate (or both). On seven occasions this season, a Syracuse opponent was able to score over a point per trip despite mediocre shooting.

Jim Boeheim’s teams have always been poor on the defensive glass, and this edition is no exception. In fact, this weakness might have been the Orange’s undoing had Marquette not put up one of the worst shooting games you’ll ever see (25.5 effective field goal percentage). Rebounding out of the zone is a problem for Syracuse.

Sadly, Michigan is not all that well equipped to exploit the offensive glass. Even with McGary in full out beast mode, the Wolverines haven’t gotten many second chances in the tournament. I do think Michigan can get some extra opportunities in this game, but it likely won’t be the lifeblood of the offense. The Wolverines just aren’t built that way.

Therefore, an awful lot hinges on Michigan’s turnover rate, and that’s good news for an offense that lapped the field nationally when it came to a low turnover rate. If Trey Burke and company can avoid turnovers, grab a few offensive rebounds, and avoid a horrific shooting night, I feel the Wolverines will score over a point per trip and advance to the national championship. I’ll take Michigan in a 65-60 win.

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