Next up, a guy who knows a thing or two about breaking down opposing defenses.
Trey Burke, meet the Orange Crush.
The Final Four semifinal between Syracuse and Burke’s Michigan team will present a clear contrast in styles tonight — the Orange, a veteran group that is perfectly content to settle into their octopus-like zone, vs. the brash young Wolverines, who love to run, run, run and have been compared to those Fab Five squads of the early 1990s.
Clearly taking to heart the adage that offense wins fans but defense wins championships, Syracuse sounded like a team that fully expects to be playing in the title game at the Georgia Dome.
“It’s going to take them a while to adjust to the zone,” junior guard Brandon Triche said Friday, a day when all four teams got a chance to practice in the cavernous, 70,000-seat stadium that is normally home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
The Michigan players quickly got wind of the comments coming from Syracuse’s media session.
“It sounds like cockiness,” said guard Tim Hardaway Jr., son of the former NBA star. “But it’s not going to come down to just talent or who has the biggest players. It’s going to come down to heart and passion.”
Having a player such as Burke doesn’t hurt, either.
The Associated Press player of the year already came up huge in the regionals, leading the Wolverine back from a 14-point deficit against Kansas with less than 7 minutes remaining. He knocked down a long 3-pointer at the end of regulation to tie the game, then finished off the upset of the top-seeded Jayhawks in overtime.
But Burke has never played against a defense quite like this.
“We’ve just got to try to find different ways to attack the zone,” the sophomore guard said. “They play a really good 2-3. It’s tough. We’ve got to make sure we knock down uncontested 3s.”
The zone is usually viewed as more of a passive defense.
Not the way Syracuse plays it.
Coach Jim Boeheim has assembled a bunch of guys with impressive size and surprising quickness. When they’re all working together — waving those long arms and moving back and forth in unison, like the ocean lapping at the shore — it can be tough to get an open jumper and nearly impossible to work the ball inside.
Syracuse (30-9) has taken its trademark “D” to new levels of stinginess in the NCAA tournament.
The Orange has surrendered a paltry 45.75 points per game, holding Montana (34), top-seeded Indiana (50) and Marquette (39) to their lowest scoring totals of the season. Overall, Syracuse’s four tournament opponents have combined to shoot just 28.9 percent from field (61-of-211) and 15.4 percent from 3-point range (14-of-91).
None of those teams had a player like Burke.
That doesn’t seem to matter to Syracuse.
“It’s tough to go against our zone when you’ve never seen it before,” forward C.J. Fair said. “We want to force him to do some things he’s not done before.”
Michigan (30-7) prefers to get in the open court as much as possible, a style that is even more advantageous against a team such as Syracuse, which has a size advantage at almost every position.
The Wolverines are averaging 75.5 points a game on the season, even more (78.8) in their four NCAA games. Last weekend, after stunning Kansas, they romped past one of the nation’s best defensive teams, beating Florida 79-59 in the regional final.
They are certainly not intimidated by Syracuse.
“If their zone was unbeatable, then they would be 39-0,” Hardaway scoffed. “We’re just going to go out there, play our game, not worry about what they’re going to do, and just play Michigan basketball.”
Syracuse is playing in its first Final Four since the 2003 team won it all. This will mark the end of the Orange’s long tenure in the crumbling Big East (they’re moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season), and the players are keenly aware this might be the best chance to give Boeheim one more national title before he retires.
The 68-year-old coach has no plans to step down just yet, but certainly the bulk of his long, successful career is behind him.
Boeheim concedes that he’s a little surprised to be in position for another championship, especially after Syracuse closed the regular season with four losses in its final five games, including a 22-point blowout at Georgetown. The Orange were seeded first in both 2010 and 2012 but didn’t make it out of the regionals. This season, they advanced to Atlanta as a No. 4 seed.
“I wouldn’t have expected going into the tournament that we were going to be here,” Boeheim said. “This team has come together. Sometimes that happens at tournament time. It happened to us in ’96 when we kind of came together and got (to the Final Four). And other years, we’ve come close.”
Michigan hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1993, when the Fab Five team — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — lost in the championship game for the second year in a row.
These Wolverines have some of that same vibe, with a lineup that features three freshmen — Glenn Robinson III (another son of a former NBA star), Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary — and a sophomore leader.
A couple of weeks ago, King dropped by one of Robinson’s classes to speak on an era that is still remembered fondly at Michigan, even though the triumphs were eventually thrown out by the NCAA because of illicit payments to Webber.
“A lot of people want to make the comparison,” Robinson said. “But we’re nowhere near the Fab Five. ... They changed the face of college basketball. We try to stay away from all that.”
Still, it’s easy to see Burke fitting in with those great teams from two decades ago.
Now, he’s got a chance to do something the Fab Five never did — win a national title.
The Wolverines, you see, are feeling good about their chances, too.
Bring on the Orange Crush.
“If you’re not confident in the Final Four, then you shouldn’t be here,” Burke said. “We’ll be ready.”