ATLANTA (CBSNewYork/AP) — The experienced Syracuse Orange are perfectly content wearing teams down with their octopus-like zone defense. The Michigan Wolverines are youthful and love to run, run, run, which has raised obvious comparisons to the great Michigan teams of the early 1990s.
Michigan’s current talents are brushing off any comparison to the Fab Five.
Besides, the Wolverines have a chance to do something that group never did.
Win a national championship.
Michigan, making its first Final Four appearance since the Fab Five era, takes on suffocating Syracuse in a national semifinal Saturday night that presents a clear contrast in styles.
Not so fast.
“We’re nowhere near the Fab Five,” said Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III, son of the former NBA star. “They changed the face of college basketball. We try to stay away from all that.”
Michigan hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1993, when the squad featuring 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 — Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary — and a sophomore leader, Associated Press player of the year Trey Burke.
A couple of weeks ago, King dropped by one of Robinson’s classes to talk about 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.
“The Fab Five is such a tremendous story, five tremendous guys that did something special,” coach John Beilein said Friday, a day when all four teams got a chance to practice in the cavernous, 70,000-seat Georgia Dome that is normally home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Syracuse, of course, couldn’t care less about some Michigan team from two decades ago.
“It’s going to take them a while to adjust to the zone,” said junior guard Brandon Triche, who, like the rest of his teammates, was brimming with confidence that defense is going to carry Syracuse to Monday night’s title game against either Louisville or Wichita State.
The Michigan players quickly got wind of the comments coming from Syracuse’s media session.
“It sounds like cockiness,” said guard Tim Hardaway Jr., another son of an ex-NBA star on the Wolverines roster. “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 sophomore already came up huge in the regionals, leading the Wolverines 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,” he 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 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 have 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.”
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