Even when the Michigan Wolverines reached the number one spot on the AP Poll earlier this season, there were voices calling them fake and not good enough; not battle tested or proven. When the NCAA tournament began, that was the general consensus – Michigan are talented and fun to watch when Trey Burke has his game on. But in the national semifinal, Burke was awful, and Michigan still overcame an amazing defensive unit for the second time in a row, reaching the national title game for the first time in 20 years.
And they did it by playing the same kind of basketball Syracuse imposed on the game. The Orange are never good enough to score too many points, so they turn it into an ugly-fest of basketball with that 2-3 zone defense that’s been so hard to beat for teams like Indiana and Marquette earlier down the road. But something has clicked for Michigan in the NCAA tournament; maybe it’s been Trey Burke acting more as a leader instead of a finisher, or Mitch McGary transforming into the team’s best player. Whatever it’s been, it worked.
Michigan, yes, Michigan, played excellent defense, winning 61-56, despite Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nick Stauskas combining for 29 points and 5-29 (17.2%) from the field. They forced Syracuse to take bad three point shots time and time again (3-14) while controlling the defensive boards. More importantly they were amazing on the offensive glass – Mitch McGary, who like Russ Smith on their final opponents, will win the MOP award if his team wins the national title, grabbed 12 rebounds, 5 of them on offense. Glenn Robinson III grabbed five more, as the two combined for 20 points and 9-15 from the field.
In games like these, hustle, good defense and making the least amount of mistakes wins, not amazing individual basketball, which wasn’t there for the showing on both teams (Michael Carter-Williams with only 2 points). Michigan turned the ball 10 times during the game, but allowed Syracue only 10 points off of these turnovers, after averaging 17.3 throughout the tournament. Michigan assisted on 17 of their 21 field goals (80.9%). They are now 22-0 this season when they assist on more than 50% of their field goals.
Lesson to be learned? As talented as Trey Burke and some of the players on this team are, it’s going to be the less heralded part of the bunch, and of the basketball game in general, that’s going to win them the national title for the first time since 1989.