Editor's note: Before heading to Atlanta, Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf met at the watercooler to discuss both of Saturday's Final Four matchups.
Myron: Here we are again, Eamonn. We've already discussed Wichita State vs. Louisville. But there's another Final Four matchup that's probably more difficult to assess. A pair of No. 4 seeds, Michigan against Syracuse. Between tweets, emails and conversations with college basketball fans, they all have the same question about this game, E. Can Michigan crack this relentless 2-3 Syracuse zone that's just not interested in letting anyone score (see Marquette's 12 field goals in last weekend's loss)?
Eamonn: I'm torn on this, as pregame analytic predictions go, because on the one hand, Michigan appears to be awfully well suited for it. Syracuse's main strengths in that zone are its ability to eliminate passing lanes and force turnovers; Michigan was the least turnover-prone team in the country this season. The Orange protect the rim at all costs; Michigan would typically prefer -- or at least happily acquiesce -- to shoot 22-footers anyway. Syracuse is determined to keep teams out of the middle of the zone, particularly on the dribble; Michigan has one of the few players in the country who might be able to get the ball there without making a pass (Trey Burke).
But on the other hand, all of those things sound really nice until you actually get into a game with Syracuse, and its size and athleticism and length out in the front of that 2-3 formation completely overwhelm you. Watch Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche play the top of that thing lately; it's like their movements are regulated by an invisible, gap-destroying string. Jordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell couldn't even see the rim over those two, and sure, neither is Burke, but Burke is still 6-foot-2.
So, Michigan has to get good shots in the first place -- and good shots against Syracuse turn bad when guys like C.J. Fair start flying at you, arm outstretched, in those wing close-outs -- and then make them. It all sounds very simple, as does the anti-zone strategy itself, but nothing is simple about this defense right now.
Myron: All true, man. I think it's important to note that this is a more ferocious version of the zone that Cuse utilized in the regular season. Not different in scheme but better, more fluid. Marquette outplayed Syracuse (barely) on Feb. 25. On Saturday, Marquette was clearly facing a different team. Syracuse has basically delivered this message throughout the NCAA tournament: "You're not coming to the lane and we're going to challenge everything you do inside the arc, too. Feel free to jack up 3s for the next 40 minutes. Good luck with that."
But Michigan's versatility, limited turnovers and Burke will make life tough on the Orange. Jim Boeheim's team can't win with D alone. And these guys have had some shaky moments on offense thus far. James Southerland has been streaky from beyond the arc. Carter-Williams committed five turnovers against Cal. Triche's jump shot comes and goes. But the Orange's defense has been so strong that they haven't had to score 70 points to win.
Let's say, however, that Michigan exploits the gaps in the zone, creates space and hits shots. Can Syracuse compete with the Wolverines in a back-and-forth, high-scoring battle?
Eamonn: Another interesting question! Because I think Syracuse is actually kind of OK with just getting up and down and letting MCW run at people. I don't know if that's the game the Orange want to play with Michigan, but it's a game they CAN play.
The one other interesting matchup is the rebounding side of things: Michigan has not been a particularly good defensive rebounding team this season, and even with Mitch McGary going nuts right now, the defensive glass remains a weakness. That just so happens to be where Syracuse does its best work: It uses all that size and athleticism to just bang people on the boards. So I'm guessing a half-court game that forces Michigan to crack the zone on one end and allows Syracuse to get after the boards on the other is probably just about Jim Boeheim's ideal.
I already kind of thought this, but after thinking through it with you I really do now: This could be a capital-G Great game.
Myron: I agree, man. On paper, it's a very intriguing matchup. Plus, there's always the possibility that Burke might go Kemba Walker on the whole event and just carry the Wolverines to a title. But I think MCW could do the same thing for Cuse. Goodness. You're right. This could be a very good game. How lucky are we to have the chance to see it live?
Eamonn: Very, very lucky. See you in Atlanta.