Sunday, April 07, 2013

Season is Over

It is always bittersweet when the season is over, with the exception of 2002-2003.  A loss is always the last game of the year, and it is tough to end that way.  Player's careers end, and the team as you know it ceases to exist.

This year's team did not disappoint me.  It was a flawed team, as many in the NCAA were.  They lost their mojo down the stretch of the regular season, and that did disappoint me, particularly with it being the last year of the Big East.  However, they redeemed, and revitalized themselves in the Big East Tournament, and carried that success over to the NCAA tournament.

The Orange would dominate their first four games of the NCAA tournament, making tournament worthy teams look inept on offense. Syracuse was playing their zone defense at its best, generating high turnovers, reducing shooting percentages, and simply frustrating teams out of their game plans.

Last night the Michigan Wolverines were able to jump out to a 36-25 halftime lead, primarily for three reasons. The first was that Mitch McGary kept his phenomenal post-season play going, doing his best Bill Walton impression with his shooting, rebounding and passing.

The second was Michigan's ability to hit the shots in the first half. A couple of bench players came in and made some three point shots, and Michigan made a couple of 30 foot three point shots in desperation.  

The third was that Syracuse could not handle Michigan's defense, could not figure out how to score.

I will digress for a second here while I rant about my feelings of the national media and halftime shows. I often wonder if they watch the same games I do. I have more of a feeling that they make up their minds before the game begins, and then use the action in the first half of the game to justify their positions.

Look, Michigan made some nice plays in the first half against Syracuse's defense.  Michigan also made some incredibly difficult shots.  A team runs a defense to force another team to take shots it doesn't want to take; that is how the game works. If that other team happens to make those difficult shots, you tip your hat to them.  You don't need to adjust your defense to account for it, though all the experts at halftime indicated that is exactly what the Orange would need to do.

The experts made very little reference to the fact that Syracuse's offense was struggling against Michigan's underrated defense. That was the real story of the game. 

I could not believe the experts were suggesting that Syracuse, down by 11, would need to adjust its defensive scheme to win the game.  Nonsense. 

Instead, Syracuse did exactly what it needed to do. It turned up the pressure a little with its zone, kept playing its solid defense, and slowly brought themselves into the game. 

C.J. Fair had an outstanding game, and Michigan had very little answer for him.  He ended up hitting 9 of 20 shots, but it sure seemed like he was hitting more than that.

Jerami  Grant game in and gave the Orange a much needed lift, something he hasn't done for a while.  His seven rebounds in seventeen minutes were very important.  

Syracuse's defense stymied Michigan's offense in the second half. The NCAA Player of the Year, Trey Burke, could never figure out the defense.  He scored only 7 points on 1-8 shooting, and had only 4 assists. Tim Hardaway Jr was 4 of 16 from the field.  The sharp shooting Nik Stauskas, who had just torched Florida with 6 for 6 three point shooting, and had a 43.9% three point shooting on the year, was held to 0 for 4.

The Orange did a lot right last night, and should be proud of their accomplishments. They got back into the game, and had a few pivotal moments where it was theirs to take, but the breaks did not fall.  The biggest moment down the stretch was during Syracuse's big run, and Carter-Williams had the great defensive play on Hardway, drawing the charge on the trap just beyond half court. That play would have been a dagger into the Wolverines souls, and given Syracuse the ball.

Instead, the referee erred and called it a blocking foul on Carter-Williams.  This had the triple impact of not giving Syracuse the ball, giving the Wolverine free throws, AND giving Carter-Williams his fourth personal foul, which would be extremely critical a minute later when he fouled out.

I don't want to hark on that moment, though in the tide of a game, that was huge. It cannot be understated.

Nevertheless, the bottom line why the Orange did not win was that Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland could not deliver throughout the game.  As well as Carter-Williams had played in the tournament, he struggled on Saturday night. Defensively he was outstanding (look at Burke & Hardaway). But offensively he did nothing; his passing and running of the offense was negated, and he turned the ball over 5 times.

Triche played a decent game, but Syracuse needed more from him.  They needed him to be able to hit a three point shot; he wisely only took two (he missed), but a big night from Triche shooting would have helped.  He was smart and realized he could drive to the hoop, and kept doing that late in the game. A very wise move... the type of move he kept forgetting about all year.  It was questionable whether or not he charged on this last foul; I applaud him for deciding to take it to the hoop.  It was the right decision, just the wrong outcome. Hidden in Triche's game was his outstanding defense (MCW had help in shutting down the Michigan guards), and his ball handling. Triche had 8 assists and only 2 turnovers for the game.

Syracuse really missed James Southerland. Michigan played him tight, but he did get a few open shots.  If Southerland had made a couple of those shots earlier in the game, something he had done all year long, that would have made a huge difference.  Syracuse also missed Southerlands defensive play and rebounding that he had excelled at lately.

Keep in mind that Southerland was missing some open shots that he normally makes, and two bench players for Michigan (Albrecht & LeVert) went 4 for 5 from three point range.  That type of thing makes a HUGE difference in a tight game.

Syracuse still had its chances in the last minute, despite the fact that its two starting guards were both out of the game, and they had no real ball handler on the court.  

The team never gave up. They played as a team down the stretch, they gave it all they could.  It was a game they could've won, and that will bother the players.  But the Orange never folded, like they did at points this year. They never panicked.  The team had offensive limitations all year, and those limitations could not be overcome down the stretch against a Wolverine team that was playing with real defensive intensity.

So, my thanks to the Orange for a wonderful season.  It's not a National Championship, but you gave us all a fun ride through the NCAA Tournament.

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