When Michigan and Syracuse hit the floor in Saturdays NCAA national semifinals in Atlanta, they will be the first No. 4 seeds to ever meet in a Final Four.
But upon closer examination, the Wolverines and Orange have a lot more in common that just their tournament seeding. Both teams got off to wildly successful starts to begin the season, each suffered through almost identical end-of-the-regular season slumps, and then turned it on again in the NCAA Tournament when most people were already counting them out.
It just goes to prove that its such a long season, said Michigan coach John Beilein. In this day of parity, its almost impossible to maintain a high level the entire season. Thats what made Kentuckys run last year even more incredible. They were great from start to finish, where most teams point to the postseason and stake their reputations on what they do in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite one of the youngest teams in his seven-year tenure at Michigan, Beileins team was picked second in the Big Ten preseason polls behind Indiana. The Wolverines were coming off a 24-10 season in 2011-12 in which they tied for the conference title and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
With super sophomore guard Trey Burke and junior guard/forward Tim Hardaway, Jr., leading the way, Beilein mixed in four talented freshmen and won his first 16 games to move to the top of the national polls.
Likewise, an Orange team that lost three its three top scorers, plus 7-foot center Fab Melo, was picked second in the Big East in preseason. It then ran off 19 wins in the first 20 games, with only a blip on the radar against Temple in Madison Square Garden just before Christmas. That run included a huge nonconference win at Arkansas and a victory at then-No. 1 Louisville.
SU rose to as high as No. 3 in the polls after that victory and a home win over Cincinnati.
The Wolverines stay at No. 1 was short-lived, however, as they suffered their first loss on Jan. 13 at Ohio State.
The Orange also dropped in the polls after an overtime loss at Villanova on Jan. 26, and a pounding at Pittsburgh two days later.
Still, winning 20 of its first 21 games was a great accomplishment for the Wolverines.
We certainly felt good about how we were playing at that time, said Burke, a first-team All-American and a top candidate for Player of the Year honors. But we also knew the bulk of our conference schedule was ahead of us, and that there were going to berough patches.
After reeling off four wins in a row against weaker Big Ten teams, Michigan dropped three of its next four, including road losses at Indiana, Wisconsin and in-state rival Michigan State.
Beileins team went 5-5 over the final few weeks of the regular season, falling to the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. After beating Penn State in the first round in Chicago, Michigan lost to Wisconsin in the semifinals.
That loss to Wisconsin (68-59) was kind of a wake-up call for us, said Hardaway Jr., son of former NBA star Tim Hardaway. I think maybe we were too full of ourselves, and just figured we could turn it on at any moment. We found out that wasnt true, especially defensively.
SU also lost its way over the final month of its last Big East Conference campaign. A poor performance at Connecticut, followed by home losses to Georgetown and Louisville and a road defeat at Marquette dealt the Orange a severe blow to its confidence level. A regular-season-ending 61-39 blowout loss at Georgetown compounded the anxiety.
You cant say we didnt lose some confidence during that end stretch, SU senior guard Brandon Triche said. But we knew we werent that bad, and that all it took was a game or two to come out of our funk.
Coach Jim Boeheim insists that the best thing that could have happened to his club was going to the Big East Tournament without many expectations. We lost to the top five teams (in our league), so there wasnt a sense of doom and gloom.
The Orange, as usual, found an elixir in the Big Apple, putting together a scintillating run, which included payback wins over Pittsburgh and then Georgetown. Even a loss to Louisville in the finals couldnt stop SUs postseason momentum.
Michigan also put the Big Ten tournament disappointment behind it with impressive early NCAA wins over South Dakota State and VCU. Then came that incredible overtime win over top-seeded Kansas in the South Regional semifinals, and an impressive 20-point rout of Florida in the regional finals to earn the schools first Final Four berth since 1993.
SUs dominant four-game NCAA run, inspired by a suffocating 2-3 zone defense, also has the Orange feeling almost giddy about where it came from this season.
Its been a roller coaster ride, to be sure, senior forward James Southerland said. But now were in the home stretch, and we arent looking back.