There was a point in time where many people, myself included, thought that Michigan might be the best team in the country.
Trey Burke was playing like, well, Trey Burke. Nik Stauskas was hitting seemingly every shot that he took. Tim Hardaway Jr. was playing like an all-american and Glenn Robinson III didn’t look like a freshman at all.
But that all changed late down the stretch of the regular season. Stauskas slumped, Robinson struggled against top-flight competition, Jordan Morgan got hurt and, after a flameout in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines ended up with a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance.
Things clicked once the tournament began, however, and John Beilein’s club once again looks like a title contender.
How they got here: The Wolverines torched both No. 13 seed South Dakota State and No. 5 seed VCU on the first weekend. In the Sweet 16, Michigan erased a 14 point deficit in the final seven minutes and an eight point deficit in the final 1:14 to beat No. 1 seed Kansas before blowing out No. 3 Florida for the right to go to the Final Four.
Odds to win the title: 3:1
Why they can win: Trey Burke is awesome, but the reason that Michigan can win a national title is because everyone else around him is playing well. Nik Stauskas went 6-6 from three and scored 22 points against Florida. Glenn Robinson III was arguably the team’s best player in their wins over SDSU and VCU. Most importantly, Mitch McGary is starting to look like the guy that was ranked No. 1 in the Class of 2012 at one point during his time in high school. He has averaged 17.5 points and 11.5 boards in the four games of the tournament.
When Burke is getting that kind of support, Michigan can survive some of his shooting struggles. Because, to be quite honest, outside of the three minute stretch where Burke took over against Kansas to force overtime and win that game, he has played pretty average basketball (by his standards) the last four games.
Why they won’t win: Their defense, specifically Trey Burke. Who is he going to guard on Syracuse? Michael Carter-Williams? He feasted on Indiana’s small guards, finishing with 24 points. Will Michigan put him on Brandon Triche? Maybe, but Triche not only has four inches on Burke, he has 40 pounds on him. What if they make it to the title game? Can Burke stay in front of Siva or Smith without getting into foul trouble? What about Malcolm Armstead?
And Burke isn’t the only player on the team that can struggle on the defensive end of the floor. McGary isn’t exactly known as a shot-blocking menace. Robinson can get overpowered by bigger four-men. There’s no question that Michigan is going to be able to score, but their work on the defensive end will end up being the difference.
Key stat: There are two you need to know: they are the best in the country when it comes to protecting the ball, and they are 11th in the country in effective field goal percentage. Why does that matter? Well, they should be able to pass through and shoot over the Syracuse zone, and should they play Louisville in the final, they may not have as much trouble with the Cardinal’s press as other teams have.
Game-changer: Mitch McGary. He’s not a shot-blocker, but his physical presence on the interior certainly makes a difference, especially when he’s getting to the offensive glass and setting screens for Burke.
Prediction?: I actually think that Michigan is going to lose to Syracuse in the Final Four, but if they manage to knock off the Orange, I think that the Wolverines would be a better matchup with Louisville that Syracuse would.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.