Last April, Trey Burke stood in front of reporters and announced that he was going to return to Michigan. The announcement came days after reports swirled that Burke was headed to the league after one, albeit very successful, season at Michigan.
When asked why he would return, Burke didn’t hesitate: he thought the Wolverines could win a National Championship.
“I just feel like we have some unfinished business to do,” Burke explained. “With the recruits coming in and the returning players, I feel like we have a great chance at a National Championship.”
Almost a year after that announcement to the day, Trey Burke is going to lead Michigan out of the tunnel into the Georgia Dome to play for a National Championship on Monday night.
It felt optimistic then, possible in December and foolish in February but now Michigan sits just 40 minutes away from the ultimate goal.
For the majority of this season, Burke has carried the Wolverines. Tonight, in the most important moment of the season, it was just the opposite. Michigan’s unflappable and consistent scorer was stopped dead by Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and his teammates – the reasons he came back to school – shouldered the weight to punch Michigan’s ticket to the National Championship Game.
This was a story of two vastly different halves – on one end of the floor. Michigan’s uncharacteristic consistency on the defensive end of the floor was what allowed it to survive a dreadful second half offensive performance against Syracuse’s zone.
|1st Half||2nd Half|
Michigan carved up Syracuse in the first half to near perfection. The bench provided a massive lift and suddenly everything fell into place. Michigan was able to exploit the zone but also hit timely threes, found opportunities in transition and avoided turnovers. The Wolverines couldn’t have asked for a better start to the game, up by 11 points and clicking on all cylinders at the break.
As great as those 20 minutes were, the second half was as bad. Michigan gave the ball away on nearly a quarter of its possessions, shot 35% on twos, 29% on threes, and looked perplexed by Syracuse’s defensive look. While the Wolverines did get to the free throw line in the second half, many of the fouls were intentional down the stretch and the Wolverines went just 11-of-20 from the charity stripe for the game.
Despite the offensive ineptitude, Michigan shut down Syracuse’s offense. The Orange mustered just .93 points per trip; this was the fourth time in five NCAA tournament games the Wolverines have held an opponent below a point per possession. Michigan had done that just once in its six games leading up to the tournament.
The Wolverine defense excelled at doing everything short of slowing down CJ Fair, who finished with 22 points on 9-of-20 shooting. It was no secret that Syracuse isn’t a great shooting team and required offensive rebounding to support its offense; Michigan rebounded 70% of the Orange’s misses and allowed just nine second chance points. Syracuse went just 3-of-14 from three point range – James Southerland, the one true three point threat, finished with five points on 1-of-5 three point shooting – and managed an effective field goal percentage of 44.5%.
This day was about Michigan’s defense and its bench – two things that have been questioned steadily throughout the season. The same bench that scored just five points total during the first weekend of the tournament contributed over a third of Michigan’s production and outscored its top three scorers. Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to go just 5-of-26 from the field yet Michigan still won a game in the Final Four, that says a lot about how far this team has come.
Next up is the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Louisville Cardinals. The Cardinals survived a scare from Wichita State and are five point favorites according to Ken Pomeroy, who ranks their defense first and offense fifth in adjusted points per possession.
- Mitch McGary: McGary’s NCAA tournament transformation shows no sign of slowing down as he continues to post monster numbers. Tonight: 10 points (4-8 fg), 12 rebounds (5 off), six assists and two blocks. McGary isn’t just a more consistent player than he was earlier in the season, he’s now a dominant player. Michigan is a different team with him playing like this and he’s the chief reason for the Wolverines unexpected run. McGary hit mid-range jumpers, started a fast break himself, set the tone early with a high light block, finished with dunks at the rim; there was very little he didn’t do. And kudos to Beilein for trusting him with three fouls, only sitting him for two minutes.
- Jordan Morgan: Behind Michigan’s tournament run, Morgan has had probably the worst three weeks that anyone could imagine – given the situation. Despite his funk and drastically reduced playing time, he’s stuck with it and kept working. That all paid off down the stretch tonight as he took a critical charge, preventing the tying basket, and was rewarded with a breakaway dunk after Michigan’s final possession.
- Caris LeVert: Caris LeVert hadn’t made a shot since March 3rd and hadn’t hit a three since February 24th. He looked lost offensively throughout most of the NCAA tournament and had rarely seen the floor. LeVert stepped up when his team needed him most in the Final Four, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 (2-3 3pt) shooting while grabbing four rebounds and handing out two assists in 21 minutes. The offensive production was nice but he also defended well and it was impressive seeing him compete for rebounds late in the game.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson quietly had an impactful game, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and grabbing six rebounds – five offensive. He did struggle in pockets of Syracuse’s zone (3 turnovers) and guarding CJ Fair but his impact on the offensive glass was critical.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway scored 13 points on 4-of-16 (3-10 3pt) shooting with six rebounds and five assists. His shooting line is ugly but he needs to be a shot taker for his role in Michigan’s zone offense to work. He did grab six rebounds and hand out five assists to just one turnover, all critical production. And then there was his timely late game save. Michigan needs him to hit shots and he didn’t, but Hardaway still managed to bring a lot to the table.
- Trey Burke: I don’t remember Burke penetrating the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone more than a couple times. He really struggled to break into that middle area off of the bounce and was rendered ineffective because of it. He still scored seven points and handed out four assists but he was obviously not comfortable against the ‘Cuse zone. That’s not to say Burke had an awful game – he grinded out 7 points, grabbed five rebounds, handed out four assists, blocked a shot and added three steals – but Michigan will need his offensive firepower against Louisville.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht was unfazed by Syracuse’s length in the first half and buried a pair of triples, one from what can only be described as Trey Burke range. Albrecht only played four minutes on Saturday but his NCAA tournament has been impressive as he’s made his presence felt (and scored) in every game.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas went 0-of-5 from the floor in 18 minutes. His jumpers seemed rushed and forced against the ‘Cuse zone and once the Orange length affected his shot, he stopped hitting it. Luckily LeVert was waiting in the wings to play a big game.
- Jon Horford: Horford scored four points on 1-of-2 shooting but only played four minutes as there aren’t many minutes to be had when Mitch McGary is dominating.