ATLANTA -- In order to beat Syracuse, Michigan needed Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway to play well, and Nik Stauskas had to make shots. That's how the Wolverines were going to beat the vaunted 2-3 zone of the Orange.
Well, none of that happened -- the three perimeter stars for Michigan shot a combined 5-for-29 -- and the Wolverines still came out on top 61-56.
Saturday night's win wasn't a typical Michigan win. Burke never really got his offense going, hitting one deep 3 but not doing much else off the dribble. Hardaway finished with 13 points, but he was 4-for-16 and didn't get many open looks. He did hit some key shots, but there were few openings for him. And Stauskas -- only a game removed from going 6-for-6 from 3-point range against Florida -- didn't make a shot all night.
Had you said that Michigan was going to beat Syracuse with the Wolverines' top three scorers struggling mightily on the offensive end, it would have seem far-fetched. After all, the Wolverines have had a reputation all season of being a perimeter-oriented group that is capable of being bullied in the paint.
That all changed against Syracuse, as the Wolverines won the game in the paint. They grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and made plays around the rim throughout the game.
Freshman Mitch McGary continued his rapid ascent into a potential first-round draft pick by going for 10 points and 12 rebounds -- while also dishing six assists and constantly finding gaps in the zone. Jordan Morgan only played five minutes, but he took a key charge on Brandon Triche late in the game. And Jon Horford also gave solid minutes, scoring four points.
“They showed a great tenacity and passion, creating extra possessions for us, whether it be on the offensive glass or making themselves available in the seams of the zone,” assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. “I'm particularly pleased with the energy and the next-man-up mentality that they displayed.”
McGary has been the breakout star for the Wolverines all tournament, now averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds through five games. His nonstop energy and aggressiveness at both ends have really set the tone for Michigan. McGary opened up Saturday night's game with emphatic blocks on back-to-back possessions.
He never slowed down, either, becoming a playmaker in the middle of the Syracuse zone.
“The guys need me to step up when the moment's needed,” McGary said. “Trey and Tim have done a good job of being the opponents' key, keying on them a lot. I'm just getting a lot of open looks and making good decisions.”
Michigan hasn't had the toughest of reputations this season. The question with the Wolverines has often been whether they were strong enough and physical enough to win a neutral-court game against a team that had talent and toughness. Most people thought that if you stopped the perimeter players, the big guys weren't good enough to pick up the slack.
Some even considered the Wolverines' post rotation to be somewhat soft -- and Michigan did hear the whispers.
“Anytime you get called out and described for things people don't think you can do, there's a certain type of competitive spirit that comes out of each and every player,” Alexander said. “That's what you're seeing out there in the games.”
Against Louisville, Michigan will likely need Burke, Hardaway and Stauskas to play better -- and they probably won't all have off nights again. But the Wolverines showed on Saturday night that it's not just a guard-driven team without any inside help. They showed they can win with defense, rebounding and physical play.
Said Alexander: “We'll show you that we can defend. We'll show you that we're unified. We'll show you that we can get to Monday night.”
And now they're there.