NCAA Final Four, why is Michigan the team to beat

Whoever watched Michigan versus Kansas, surely thinks that destiny played a role in Michigan’s trip to the Final Four. But we can’t say that destiny is the only reason why Michigan could win it all in Atlanta.

THE ROAD

Coach Beilein’s team went to the Tournament with a record of 26-7. However, Michigan had an extremely difficult schedule: Wolverines played twelve games against teams which ended the season in the Top 25. This is unusual: Florida Gators for example, Michigan’s opponents in Regional semifinals, played only three games against that kind of teams.  Wolverines ended fourth in the Big Ten and lost to Wisconsin in the first game of Big Ten Tournament. But they are the only Big Ten’s team still in the Tournament. At the beginning of the season, they did not lost a game for a long time: 16 consecutive wins before the loss against Ohio State. Then they outscored Minnesota, Illinois and the Buckeyes, too. But they keep on losing games and they ended their season without advancing in the Conference Tournament.

Michigan was part of the South Regional, the same of teams like Kansas, Georgetown and Florida. The Wolverines walked away with the first two games: 71-56 against South Dakota State and 78-53 against Virginia Commonwealth. They went to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time after 19 years. As the Wolverines met the Jayhawks, Michigan’s dream seemed to come to an end. Jayhawks had a 10-point lead after 38 minutes. But Burke and Robinson started to knocked down everything and Burke tied the game with an incredible buzzer beater. Michigan won the game at the overtime. Stauskas scored six three-pointers in the Elite Eight and his team outscored Florida. 20 years ago, Chris Webber called his notorious timeout in the national final. Now, the Wolverines are again in the Final Four.

WHY COULD MICHIGAN WIN

Michigan is a young team, a reason why many people had doubt about them. Tim Hardaway Jr. (junior), Trey Burke (sophomore) and three freshmen (Stauskas, Robinson III and McGary) are the team’s starters; LeVert and Albrecht, backup players, are freshmen. Nonetheless, Wolverines did not pay their lack of experience through the four games they played in 2013 Tournament so far. They could have been afraid of Kansas, a truly experienced team, but they overcame the odds to win the game thanks to Burke, Robinson and McGary. No-one hung back. Michigan plays an outstanding basketball and everyone is involved. The team shots a lot from beyond the arc because of reliable shooters like Stauskas (45%), Hardaway Jr. (38.7%), Albrecht (46.2%) and Burke (38.1%).

Mitch McGary, who averaged 6.2ppg and 5.5rpg during the regular season, was dominant throughout this Tournament. Against VCU he had 21 points and 14 rebounds (10/11 from the field); against Kansas, 25 points, 14 rebounds and 3 steals. Burke helped him with his assists, but McGary was often able to score after grabbing the offensive rebound. It is difficult to understand how to stop Michigan. When Burke and Hardaway shot 8/29 from-the-field (Elite Eight), Stauskas had 7/8 from the field and 6/6 from the three point line. When Burke, Robinson and Stauskas had 2/12 from beyond the arc (Round of 32), McGary dominated in the paint (10/11 from the field). Michigan’s one may be the perfect system to win it all.

THE SEMIFINAL

Zone could be the key. Jim Boeheim used that defense against Marquette and switched off the opposite team. Syracuse’s opponents averaged 45.7 points-per-game throughout the Tournament, but Wolverines scored 78.7 points-per-game so far. Orange had poor shooting in the four games they played (43.3% from the field, 85/196), while Michigan had 40% from the three point line (33/82) and 49.4% from the field (124/251). We will see on the court two different teams. Wolverines’ players can break Syracuse defense, but they can even be the nth victims of Boeheim’s zone defense. Trey Burke will not only have to score, but also to create shots for Stauskas and Hardaway. If they will score, zone defense will collapse. Robinson and McGary will fight with the athleticism of the opponents in the paint.

KEY PLAYER: Trey Burke

At the beginning of his career, Trey Burke was already dominant: he was 5 years old when the league in which he played changed the rules in order to forbid him to steal the ball. A chosen one. To convince everyone of his skills, he earned the Big Ten Player of the Year, Sports Illustrated Player of the Year, AP College Basketball Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Trophy, Bob Cousy Award and John Wooden Award. The performance against Kansas (23 points, all in the second half, and 10 assists) is obviously his best in this Tournament so far, but he also shined in the Elite Eight: 15 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals (NCAA rules allow him to steal the ball!). Michigan needs his effort to win it all and the pressure will be on him in the Final Four. But Burke has the ability to ignore it…so, why don’t keep going?

Filippo Antonelli