Michigan and Syracuse arrive at the Final Four both as No. 4 seeds, both as teams that rebounded from late-season struggles.
The path has been similar since about February, but not necessarily in the long term. Despite no Final Fours since the 2003 national title, Syracuse is the well-established basketball program here. The Orange lost four of the top six scorers from last year’s team and still had players like Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair and James Southerland ready to take their place. Michigan has had its share of players take key roles, but they’re fresh faces -- Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Where Syracuse has three McDonald’s All-Americans, Michigan’s best player -- and perhaps the best player in the country -- was a three-star recruit in Trey Burke. And where Syracuse is a player on the national stage each season, Michigan has needed decades to overcome NCAA sanctions from the Fab Five era. Syracuse has waited a decade to be back at the Final Four, but Michigan has waited twice as long.
On Saturday, they’ll fight for the same prize to reach the national title game.
Final Four Preview: Louisville vs. Wichita State
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 4 Syracuse
Michigan projected starters
Syracuse projected starters
Michigan will win the national title if…
The Wolverines shoot the ball well from the perimeter. This Michigan team doesn’t rely on the 3-point shot as much as previous John Beilein-coached teams — only 29.8 percent of its points come from beyond the arc — but Michigan’s guards will need to hit open shots against Syracuse’s zone defense on Saturday and against Louisville (assuming the Cards beat Wichita State) on Monday.
Michigan will lose to Syracuse on Saturday if…
Trey Burke gets off to another slow start and Mitch McGary doesn’t play well. The Wolverines have survived some subpar performances from Burke, but they will need him to be strong throughout against surging Syracuse. McGary, the freshman big man, could be a key part of the offense as it looks for gaps in the Orange zone.
Related: Ranking the top 15 players in the Final Four
Syracuse will win the national title if…
Its zone defense continues to baffle. Through four NCAA Tournament games, Syracuse’s four opponents have combined to shoot 29 percent from the field and 15 percent from 3-point range. The Orange are also averaging 6.3 blocks and 11 steals per game. This team can get away with playing just average on offense if it continues to defend the way it has the past two weekends.
Syracuse will lose to Michigan on Saturday if…
They allow the Wolverines’ shooters to get comfortable. Michigan, unlike many teams Syracuse has faced recently, has decent size on the perimeter. Trey Burke is only 6-foot, but Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nick Stauskas are both 6-6 — and that should help them get quality shots against the length of the Syracuse defenders.
Related: How the Final Four teams were built
ATHLON SPORTS STAFF ROUNDTABLE
Who is the key player for the game?
David Fox: Nik Stauskas
Zone teams are susceptible to the 3-point shot, but Syracuse is allowing opponents to convert only 28.2 percent of their shots from long range. That hasn’t stopped teams from trying as Syracuse allows 21.6 treys per game. Stauskas can get hot from 3-point range, as he did with a 6-for-6 performance against Florida. If shots open up for him on the big stage, will the freshman be ready?
Prediction: Michigan 66-62
Braden Gall: Michael Carter-Williams
The breakdown of this game is fairly simple. If the Wolverines hit outside shots against the Cuse zone, Michigan will win. If not, the Orange will set-up a fourth meeting with the Redbirds on Monday night. Tim Hardaway and Trey Burke lead what is the nation's top offensive team but the Orange's zone defense is polished, long and impossible to penetrate. Look for the developing superstar point guard Michael Carter-Williams to be the difference maker by continuing his efficient play. Jim Boeheim's career record against John Beilein will move to 10-0 in Atlanta.
Prediction: Syracuse 65-60
Mitch Light: Mitch McGary
McGary has been one of the best players in the NCAA Tournament. If he continues to play well, Michigan has a legitimate chance to win it all. He will be especially key against Syracuse because he gives Michigan a big and active body around the basket. McGary has averaged 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in four NCAA Tournament games. The Wolverines will need to shoot well to beat Syracuse, but they will also have to get some production in the pain. McGary can give them that production.
Prediction: Michigan 73-67
Mark Ross: Mitch McGary
The freshman has saved his best basketball for the end, as he's come just two rebounds shy of posting four straight double-doubles in the NCAA Tournament. His best two games of the season came against VCU (21 pts, 14 rbs) and Kansas (25,14) and he's shooting better than 73 percent from the field in the Tournament. At 6-10, he's taller than anyone on Syracuse's roster other than Baye Keita, who is a reserve and plays limited minutes. As good as Syracuse has been defensively, the Orange have been out-rebounded over their last three games. If McGary can continue his stellar play, his size and ability to score inside could help guards Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas find more open spots in Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone.
Prediction: Michigan 68-63
Nathan Rush: Glenn Robinson III
Big Dog's boy, Glenn Robinson III, will have to bring his A-game (or, better yet, his NBA-game) in order for Michigan to outlast Syracuse's suffocating 2-3 zone. GR3's point production has gone down in each round of the Tourney, from 21 to 14 to 13 to 6. That trend has to reverse in order for the Maize-and-Blue to advance to the final Monday of March Madness (er, April Madness).
Prediction: Michigan 75-73