ATLANTA (AP) — Syracuse is brimming with confidence, largely because of its suffocating style when the other team has the ball.
Next up, a guy who knows a thing or two about breaking down opposing defenses.
Trey Burke, meet the Orange Crush.
The Final Four semifinal between Syracuse and Burke’s Michigan team will present a clear contrast in styles tonight — the Orange, a veteran group that is perfectly content to settle into their octopus-like zone, vs. the brash young Wolverines, who love to run, run, run and have been compared to those Fab Five squads of the early 1990s.
Clearly taking to heart the adage that offense wins fans but defense wins championships, Syracuse sounded like a team that fully expects to be playing in the title game at the Georgia Dome.
“It’s going to take them a while to adjust to the zone,” junior guard Brandon Triche said Friday, a day when all four teams got a chance to practice in the cavernous, 70,000-seat stadium that is normally home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
The Michigan players quickly got wind of the comments coming from Syracuse’s media session.
“It sounds like cockiness,” said guard Tim Hardaway Jr., son of the former NBA star. “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 Associated Press player of the year already came up huge in the regionals, leading the Wolverine 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,” the sophomore guard 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 has 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 has 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.”