ATLANTA -- It's a truism in sports that defense wins championships, and Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense certainly paved the road to the Final Four for Jim Boeheim's team by holding opponents to an average of 45.8 points and ridiculously low shooting percentages of 28.9 overall and 15.4 from three-point range.
But Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. said the Wolverines (30-7) came into their national semifinal against the Orange (30-9) on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome believing they had the shooters to beat the 2-3 zone.
"If the zone was unbeatable, then, they would be 39-0," Hardaway said. "We're going to go out there, not worry about what they're going to do and just play Michigan basketball."
Michigan basketball revolves around point guard Trey Burke, the consensus national player of the year, but it certainly doesn't end there. The Wolverines came in shooting 48.5 percent overall and 38.5 percent from three-point range. Forwards Mitch McGary (60.5 percent) and Glenn Robinson III (56.6) have been supremely effective scoring on the inside while freshman Nik Stauskas (44.9 three-point percentage) and Hardaway (38.7 three-point percentage) are deadly from beyond the arc.
Throw in Burke's ability to penetrate and score (18.8 points) or pass (6.8 assists), and Michigan has one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Coach John Beilein only half-kiddingly said his team's plan was to make shots against Syracuse. By which he meant the Wolverines couldn't have on off night from the field and expect to win. So they spent Friday practicing shooting, and it certainly helped that they played in Cowboys Stadium in the South Regional to get accustomed to shooting in domed football stadiums.
"The thing about Syracuse is that you can't match their length," Hardaway said. "They've got guys on the wings that are 6-9, 6-10 and moving like guards. It's going to be very, very tough."
The 6-foot Burke, for instance, figured to be bothered at the top of the zone by the long arms of 6-5 Michael Carter-Williams and 6-4 Brandon Triche. Burke is a master of the pick-and-roll game, with McGary setting a screen in the high post and rolling to the basket to receive a pass when Burke draws the defense to him. He scored 25 points in the Sweet 16 victory over Kansas that way despite the presence of 7-foot shot-blocker Jeff Withey.
"I'm trying to cause the defense to collapse down on me so my guys can get more looks," McGary said. "I'm hoping for a lot of layups and dunks or kick-outs for threes. I need to try and get a lot of offensive rebounds to give this team some second chances."
McGary added that his improved scoring in the NCAA Tournament is because Burke is forcing defenses to cover him and leave others open.
"It is purely off his play," McGary said of the point guard. "Everyone keys on him and Tim. I'm just putting the ball in the basket. They're doing all the work penetrating and kicking it to me."
In the South Regional final against Florida, Stauskas showed Syracuse yet another weapon to worry about. The freshman scored 22 points and was 6-for-6 from three-point range. But Stauskas came into the game knowing he couldn't stand in the left corner, as he did against Florida's man-to-man defense, and have the same success against Syracuse's zone.
"Against the 2-3, I might have to choose the spots where I'm shooting from," Stauskas said. "It'll be in-game adjustments based on how they're playing me. I'm just going to have to roam around and pick my spots. I've been shooting the ball really well all week. Keeping that up in the game would be real nice."