- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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"Digging In" is our in-depth look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who scout and prep for these teams all season. Next: Michigan.
Is Michigan's offense enough to win them a national title?
That was the question we asked about the Wolverines in the preseason, and the nonconference season, and throughout January, February and March: Could a hyperefficient offense led by the nation's best point guard do enough on one end of the floor to make up for the flaws on the other? Don't you need to specialize in stops to progress in the NCAA tournament? Weren't the Wolverines too lenient on the defensive boards to be considered a legitimate national title contender?
Originally, I thought asking that question one final time would be a clever way to open this post -- convenient bookends, the writer's best friend -- but it would have been pointless, because we already know the answer. Yes! Yes, the Wolverines can win the national title; when you survive Kansas and trounce Florida in the matter of a weekend, and when you are a mere two wins away from "One Shining Moment," and when you have Trey Burke and a suddenly dominant Mitch McGary anchoring an offensive attack with weapons at every position, yes, you can win the national title. Obviously.
Of course, can does not automatically sum to will. There is the small matter of solving a team -- Syracuse -- that is allowing just 0.72 points per possession in its four NCAA tournament games, to say nothing of whatever challenge may be waiting in Monday's national title game. The first item of business is making sure that No. 1-ranked efficiency offense can maintain its torrid pace against the tournament's hottest and most imposing defense to date.
To figure out how that might be possible -- and how an opposing coaching staff works to prevent it from happening -- I asked Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals to help me scout the Wolverines in advance of the most intriguing matchup of the Final Four. Let's take a look.
When Michigan has the ball
1. Stop transition. Wait … really? A sidelong glance at Michigan's efficiency and tempo statistics wouldn't give you the impression the Wolverines love to get out and run -- Michigan's 65.3 possessions per game ranked No. 200 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted-tempo rankings this season. That's not Wisconsin-level deliberation, but it's not exactly seven seconds or less, either. But ask Boals what most concerned him about Michigan's offense when he and the rest of Thad Matta's staff prepared for the Wolverines this season, and he doesn't even hesitate: "It's funny -- they're a slow-paced team overall but the place they hurt you most is transition," Boals said. "That's where Glenn Robinson is really good, that's where Tim Hardaway's really good, and obviously it starts with Trey. Then you've got [Nik] Stauskas running to the 3-point line. It's kind of oxymoronic, because they're not a fast-paced team, but the biggest thing you have to take away is transition points. You just can't let them have any easy ones." According to Synergy data, the Wolverines scored 1.208 points per trip on their 472 transition possessions this season, and they get into the break more -- on 17.2 percent of their total possessions -- than you might think.
So … how do you stop Michigan in transition? "The No. 1 thing is you have to stop the ball," Boals said. "Trey does a great job of probing you and finding gaps. Then you have to identify the 3-point line, get to the shooters, and force guys to put it on the floor." This is especially true of Hardaway. The shooting guard is excellent on catch-and-shoots (1.227 PPP), but his efficiency drops precipitously once he is forced to put the ball on the floor. Once Hardaway takes a dribble, his points per trip drop to just 0.711. Fly by on closeouts if that's what it takes, but make Hardaway do more than stand with his finger in the wind on the perimeter -- especially in the open floor.
2. Slow the two-man game. Typically, this is almost impossible: Burke is simply too good playing off ball screens at the top of the key that no matter how a defense decides to play those ball screens -- whether defenders hang close to second-option perimeter shooters, or sink, or hedge hard, or you name it -- as Boals said, "you're going to give something up." In a sport in which approximately 150 percent of all offense runs through ball screens, Burke is the best of them all -- a do-everything nightmare happy to shoot, pass and penetrate with no discernible preference for any of the three.
But Syracuse won't be as worried as most. After all, while teams do screen the top of the Orange's 2-3 zone, the classic pick-and-roll/pop action is pretty much a non-starter. To get a similar pick-your-poison advantage against the zone, Boals said the Wolverines would have to make plays out of the middle of the zone, which is easier said than done. "I think they'll probably try and put Hardaway in there, because you have to have a playmaker at that high-post spot -- that's why I was surprised Indiana had [Cody] Zeller in that role as opposed to near the basket," Boals said. "If you do set a ball screen, they try to funnel it to the free throw line, so it's hard to get much out of it." This is an issue for the Wolverines, as 14.9 percent of their possessions this season ended with a shot by the ball handler (usually Burke) on a pick-and-roll action. If that entire dynamic is lost against a lanky 2-3 zone that doesn't have to decide how to defend constant ball screens, can Burke still be Burke?
Oh, and speaking of which, can McGary still be McGary? The freshman forward has emerged as an absolute stud in the wake of Jordan Morgan's ankle injury; in four tournament games he is 33-of-45 with 46 rebounds. McGary is a beast on the offensive glass, which is always good news against a zone, but will the lack of a two-man game hurt his ability to catch in good spots? And how will he fare against a Syracuse interior that blocks 19.4 percent of its opponents' shots, highest in the nation?
3. Challenge all 3s, but especially in the corner. And now we arrive at what is almost certainly the most important aspect of Saturday's game: Whether Michigan makes 3s.
The Wolverines' most frequent shot type is the jumper, which they use on over 53.4 percent of their possessions, and of those 944 jumpers in Synergy's database, 631 -- or 66.8 percent -- have come from beyond the arc. They've scored 1.138 points per possession. The Wolverines don't shoot as many 3s as they have in recent years past (when their talent required a quirkier, less-conventional approach), but the shot is still a major facet of their offense. It also just so happens to be the one most likely to exploit Syracuse's zone -- at least theoretically.
On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn published a chart of 3-point specialist Stauskas's perimeter-shooting habits during Big Ten and NCAA tournament play, and the pattern was clear: Stauskas feasts on left-corner 3s, on which he shot 23-of-42 in those 24 games. The freshman guard's specific proclivities are just one (important) piece of the larger puzzle, in which Michigan is happy to do exactly what the Syracuse zone wants: shoot 3s.
"If you actually look further at their shooting numbers, they shoot it the best from the corner," Boals said. Usually, a 2-3 zone is vulnerable there, but Syracuse has held opponents to just 14-of-92 from beyond the arc (!) in the tournament, just 5-of-26 from the corner (per Winn's chart), and just 28.2 percent overall on the season. "I'll be interested to see how many uncontested 3s they can get out of the half court," Boals said. "Typically if you overload it and get the ball to the wing and the corner, you're going to get a good look. But can you get it to the corner? With [Syracuse's] length and athleticism and how wide they are? That's the question."
On its face, this looks like pretty simple stuff. Everyone knows you have to make outside shots against a 2-3 zone! Michigan is a good shooting team! All the Wolverines have to do is make shots! Simple, right? Actually, no, because Syracuse is basically not even letting fans sitting on the opposite baseline look at the rim these days, and when a zone can do that, the entire classic anti-2-3 strategy gets very thorny.
Also, the Orange owe those fans a refund. Just saying.
Trademark set: "Two-Play" and "Five." "Two-Play" is probably coach John Beilein's most famous offensive set, which starts his two-guard front offense and ends in a wide pindown for Stauskas or Robinson or Hardaway. "Five" begins with a pass to the center and a reverse to the four, which begins a series of possible reads Boals recited like his Social Security number: "They'll get the ball to the four and then run a bunch of different things out of that," he said. "They can go back screen-ball screen, back screen-flare screen-ball screen, or wing iso for Burke." This stuff is unlikely to be used as often against the zone, and Michigan might have to rely more on its arsenal of quick-hitters in addition to the usual floor-spacing zone offense. But for the junkies who want the full scout anyway, there you go.
When Michigan is on defense
1. Be patient. On Tuesday, Temple coach Fran Dunphy said one of the most difficult things about Syracuse -- among many difficult things -- was how versatile the Orange are in their pace. That could come in handy against Michigan, because "if you come down the floor and pass it twice and take a shot, you're playing right into their hands," he said. This goes back to the prevention of transition points and the desire to make Michigan play half-court offense, but it is also about the Wolverines' defense. "That's where you get them, on that end of the floor," Boals said. "If you're patient, you'll get a good shot. It's not a matter of if you get it but when." The good news? Michigan wants you to play half-court offense. "It's weird. They're not a great transition defense, sure, but they want to you play in the half court," Boals said. "That's a big emphasis for them -- preventing transition. We think the more you pass against them, the more likely you are to get a good shot."
2. Beware the help. With the exception of Burke, who is fully capable of turning opposing penetration, none of the Wolverines is particularly stout defensively. With a little ball movement and rotation, you can stretch them, drive past close-outs and get it to good spots on the floor. But you have to be careful. "They're not a team full of great individual defenders, and they're not a shot-blocking team," Boals said. "But they are a team of great help defenders. They take a lot of charges. When Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche get into the lane, they'll be looking to come over and get in position and take charges."
3. Hit the glass. The emergence of McGary on the back line has been huge for Michigan, but the Wolverines are still just an OK defensive rebounding team -- they finished eighth in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate. So while this is a piece of scouting that is probably a good idea for any team to utilize against Michigan, it is especially useful for Syracuse, whose offense is basically just OK at everything except offensive rebounding, where it is top-10-in-the-country awesome. If Michigan is overmatched by all that Syracuse size and athleticism, and the Orange get easy putbacks, it's going to be a long night in Ann Arbor and the surrounding territories.
Defensive style: Mostly man-to-man. Beilein became famous for his tricky 1-3-1 zone at West Virginia, but he has played less and less of it this season -- per Synergy, 94.7 percent of Michigan's defensive possessions are man-to-man. "They don't play nearly as much zone as they used to, but they do still mix in some stuff -- a 2-3, a 1-3-1 -- just to keep you off balance," Boals said.
Takeaway: Most people surely tune in to the Final Four because they want to hear a story -- the coach on the cusp of greatness, the star player leading his team to the finish, the uplifting homecoming tale of injured Louisville guard Kevin Ware. Believe me: I like stories, too. I'd be in the wrong business if I didn't.
But I also like to geek out about the actual basketball, which is why it's just as much fun to sit here and try to figure out exactly how Michigan is going to beat that Syracuse zone, provided it's the same Syracuse zone that allowed 0.72 points per trip en route to Atlanta. From what I can tell, a two-point plan seems to be in order:
Beat the zone down the floor.
Hope 3s go in.
"I think they have to get out in transition and try to beat the zone down the floor," Boals said. "They've got to try to get those easy points."
I'm not sure if Michigan can get uncontested 3s against Syracuse, because almost no one does. But I do think the Wolverines can get 3s, period, and they may just be the only team in the country good enough and confident enough to fire away from 3 with those big Orange wings flying out at them. Transition is the first option. Failing that, let fly -- and pray for rain.