ATLANTA — The knock on Michigan all season long was that this group didn’t have the defensive prowess to be able to play their way deep into the NCAA tournament.
And it was a valid point; the Wolverines weren’t — and aren’t — a great defensive team. They may not even qualify as a good defensive team compared to the rest of the elite teams in the country this season. Which is where the irony for this Michigan group lies. The reason that they’re playing in Monday’s national title game isn’t Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
It’s their defense.
Think about this: Burke, Hardaway and Nik Stauskas combined to go 5-29 from the floor tonight. And Michigan won.
“We’d be talking about Trey Burke a little bit differently if we ended winning this one,” Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara said. But instead, we’re talking about Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland. Southerland didn’t score until there were five minutes left in the game, and that just so happened to be a ball that he accidentally tipped back into his own basket to push Michigan’s lead back to six points. He would finish with five points on 2-9 shooting.
Carter-Williams was worse. The guy that carried the Orange through the second weekend with two of his best performances of his career was 1-6 from the floor, finishing with more turnovers (five) than points and assists combined (four).
“I had hoped that I would play better,” Carter-Williams said. “It’s tough. I’m going to have to own up to it and move on.”
“I thought Mike got in there and had opportunities to finish,” McNamara added. “He missed one off the floater, a couple times they slid under him for charges. Sometimes it goes that way.”
And that’s where the frustration is going to lie for this Syracuse team.
They had a chance to pick up this win. They had a golden opportunity to make the National Title game right there in front of them. They lucked into a night where Michigan’s big guns and vaunted offense were no where to be found. And, perhaps more importantly, they played the Wolverines on a night where John Beilein’s club shot 4-9 from the charity stripe in the final 1:09, opening the door for a Syracuse come back.
But that comeback was thwarted. After getting to within two points with just 19 seconds left in the game, Brandon Triche drove to the right hand side and seemingly had a lane to the basket. But Jordan Morgan slid over and took the charge, sealing the win and sending Michigan on to compete for a national title.
It was the most important play of the game, and it came on the defensive end of the floor.
Who saw that coming?
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.