After a long and successful career at virtually every level of college basketball, John Beilein makes his first appearance in a Final Four. This is Michigan's first trip in 20 years, since the Fab Five made back-to-back finals in 1992 and '93 (even if the NCAA insists 1989 is the last time Michigan was here). Here's a look at Michigan's prospects in what should be a fascinating semifinal against Syracuse:
How They Got Here
Michigan was the 4-seed in the South regional. The Wolverines handled Nate Wolters and South Dakota State in their opener and then obliterated VCU's Havoc in the Round of 32. Down by 10 with a little over two minutes left against Kansas in the Sweet 16, Trey Burke's heroics rallied Michigan. The Wolverines then jumped all over Florida early in the regional final and cruised into the Final Four. The insertion of Mitch McGary into the starting lineup has been a revelation, and the Wolverines come to Atlanta playing as well as they have all season.
Offensively, the Wolverines are the most efficient team in the nation and clearly have the most skilled weapons of any team left in the field. Everything starts with all-American point guard Trey Burke and filters through elite shooter Nik Stauskas, multifaceted talents like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, and often (at least lately) culminates in the hands of McGary, the breakout star of the tournament.
They are well coached, very disciplined and very difficult to shut down completely. Unlike Louisville, which fuels its offense off of transition opportunities caused by its defense, Michigan is very careful with the ball when it has it (best turnover rate in Division I), and is extremely good from both two-point and three-point range. They get more shots than you, and they make a lot of them, too.
Michigan is also the best team in the nation in terms of defensive free throw rate, meaning the Wolverines don't put you on the line for easy points, although at times, that's not such a great plan (see most of the Kansas game).
The Wolverines' defense has been a question all season in terms of whether it's good enough to win a national title. The Jayhawks were the latest team to have significant success inside the three-point arc against Michigan, which allowed opponents to make 47.6 percent of their two-point attempts this season (179th in Division I). Even with McGary's emergence, this is not a particularly stout team in the interior. They don't have a real legit shotblocking presence, either, so good looks can be found near the rim. Even Florida, during its regional final struggles, had a lot of chances near the tin. The Gators just failed to finish many of them when the game was still in doubt.
How They Match Up
The semifinal against Syracuse will be a fascinating one to watch. Michigan's offensive variety, ability to shoot, and carefulness with the ball appears to be the perfect recipe to unlock the vaunted Syracuse zone, but it's always easier said than done, especially when you're leaning on numerous freshmen. The game may actually be decided by the matchup of weaker entities: The Syracuse offense against the Michigan defense. The Orange have the length and athletic ability, especially at point guard with Michael Carter-Williams against whoever is checking him, to exploit Michigan's defensive frailties.
Against Syracuse, it will probably be Stauskas, who specializes in the corner and deep wing threes that are available against the Syracuse zone. He blew Florida out of Arlington with five threes in the first half, and as Syracuse foes take more than 40 percent of their shots from three-point range, he should be a very big factor in this game.
If there were any team well suited to handle the challenges of both the Syracuse zone and Louisville's combo pressing/matchup zone approach, it's this Michigan team. The Wolverines have already handled three teams in Ken Pomeroy's top 16 to get here, and likely would have to handle the No. 7 and No. 1 teams (assuming a Louisville win over Wichita State) to take the title. That would be one of the most impressive championship runs in recent memory. It's asking a lot, but this team is capable. McGary's emergence has made an already lethal offense even better. That might be enough to unlock two more quality defenses and take the crown.