Orange crushed U-M finds a way to stymie vaunted Syracuse zone

by | Apr 7, 2013 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ATLANTA – There is one game left for the championship of college basketball.

And Michigan is in it.

Let’s repeat that.

Michigan is in it.

Well, ex…’Cuuuuuse me!

Bye, bye, Orange. Zo long, Zone. Jim Beiheim’s group was ex-Cused by Michigan, the youngest team in the tournament, a group that simply refuses to play to its chronological age – and keeps coming up with new plot lines. Honestly. They’re like watching “Game of Thrones.” You think you’ve seen it all – and then Mitch McGary is leading a fast break, Spike Albrecht is grabbing a huge rebound, Jordan Morgan is drawing a critical charging foul and Michigan – which hasn’t been to a Final Four in 20 years – is playing for the title Monday.

If you told me this was the future when they tipped it up in November, I’d have told you there’s a reason we just say no to drugs.

If you’d told me about this game Saturday morning, I’d have said the same thing!

But the truth of youth is often stranger than its fiction, and a team with three freshman starters and one sophomore superstar played a brilliant first half and survived a harrowing second half, and is now 40 good minutes from a championship banner.

Michigan is in it.

Might even win it.

Ex…’Cuuuuse me.

Everybody contributed

“You never know who the outlier is,” John Beilein told CBS after the 61-56 victory over Syracuse. “You never know who’s going to get it done.”

Exactly. And suddenly, it’s the Wolverines. Here is how they did it Saturday night. Everybody. Everywhere. There were times when the Wolverines relied on guys deep down the bench. There were times they set up their offense from the other side of Peachtree Street.

Everybody. Everywhere. That’s what you need when Trey Burke has one basket all night and Nik Stauskas – after 22 points last game – has zero. And that’s how you have to play to beat Syracuse. From the start, Michigan was a step ahead of most teams that face that challenge: The vaunted 2-3 zone did not intimidate them. True, Glenn Robinson III lost the first possession, getting tangled in the web, but after that, the Wolverines looked like a team that had practiced all week against this 2-3 monster – which they had. They bounced the ball inside. They pushed to beat it in transition. They found open looks and launched jumpers. They passed through it. They raced ahead of it. They shot over it.

It was textbook stuff, from a coach who knows textbook. Remember, Syracuse’s defense is usually like getting drenched in glue. Yet the Wolverines had just two early turnovers the entire first half. Two? Unnerved? They were not unnerved.

On the contrary, this group is getting older by the minute.

Can somebody check McGary’s birth certificate? I thought he was a freshman. The way he’s been playing, if basketball were academics, he’d have a BA and a Masters already. On Saturday, he was all over the place, a starter and a finisher. He came out with two blocks in the opening moments. Before long he’d have whip-pass assists, flying dunks, he grabbed all kinds of rebounds – even led a fast break, dishing an assist for a Tim Hardaway Jr. lay-up. A fast break? McGary? Sure. I bet he does windows, too. He’s tall enough.

And – oh, look – there he was finishing a break of his own, flying down the lane, taking a Burke feed and slamming it for an 11-point lead. McGary finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks. He was a whirling dervish, keeping plays alive, muscling for every board, getting slapped in the face multiple times. And on a night when Burke was way off, when Hardaway was 4-for-17, McGary not only played great, he led the team in assists!

He made others better. And that’s how U-M is getting this done.

Everybody. Everywhere.

In it.

Might win it.

A crazy place, crazy finish

You really had to see this scene to appreciate what these kids are pulling off. It is hard to describe the world inside the Georgia Dome, except to say it is not a basketball arena, unless basketball is being played on Mars. The sheer size, the length, the cavernous dimensions. You had to spin your entire body around just to take in the view. And the noise! It felt as if the entire planet was sitting around you. In truth it was just 75,000 of your closest friends – or worst enemies – along with legends like Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson sitting a few feet away. How 19-year-old kids can handle this type of environment without fainting straight away is a miracle in itself.

But they did it. They survived a huge scare at the end, overcame too many missed free throws, and finally, finally exhaled.

Now they face top-seeded Louisville, which survived a scare of its against No.9 seed Wichita State Saturday. Louisville is strong and big and talented. They may be the best team in the nation.

Unless Michigan is.

We’ll have to see. Let’s face it. The Wolverines have found all kinds of ways to win in this tournament. Saturday, they tried something new. The bench. Jon Horford hit a three-point play. Caris LaVert hit huge treys. Albrecht hit a long corner jumper and a bomb from somewhere near Alabama. All told, the bench had 21 points. They needed them all.

Because Michigan, after looking like it had the zone packed, wrapped and shipped away, suddenly started to trip over it. In the final 10 minutes, the turnovers mounted. Bad shots increased. Suddenly, the Wolverines’ offense was limited to offensive rebounds and muscle put backs. The smoothness was gone. They seemed to be playing not to lose. The lead shrank down to four points, then one point. The final seconds seemed to drag forever.

But this team is nothing if not dramatic. And so they spread it out, they ran off time – smart if not courageous – and Syracuse fouled one too many times and committed one too many mistakes and suddenly the horn sounded and the Wolverines were jumping and high-fiving and dancing with adrenaline that will carry them into Monday.

Everybody. Everywhere. This upstart band of mostly underclassmen have equaled the Fab Five in distance run in a single season, making the championship game. They can surpass them with a victory Monday – and put a crown on their heads to boot.

They’re in it.

Might win it.

Really, how could this story get any better?



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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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