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Confidence reigns for Final 4 opponents


ATLANTA — Both teams sound supremely confident, as they should, having reached the pinnacle of college basketball when three weeks ago most people didn’t give either Syracuse or Michigan a shot at making the Final Four.

Syracuse, coming off a command defensive performance in the East Regional semifinals and final in Washington, knows that its stifling 2-3 zone will keep the team in the game tonight when it takes on the Wolverines in the second national semifinal at the Georgia Dome.

Michigan, which advanced past top seeded Kansas and No. 3 Florida in the South Region, feels good about its high-powered offense, led by national player of the year Trey Burke and several other premier shooters.

So the question is, who has the advantage? Given each team’s strength, it will likely come down to these scenarios: Can Syracuse score enough points with its half-court offense to match its defensive prowess? Or will Michigan get enough defensive stops to trigger its high-powered transition game so it won’t have to win the game from the perimeter, Death Valley against SU of late?

“At this point, you play your game and hope the execution is there,” said Burke, a sophomore who added the Wooden Award on Friday to his AP National Player of the Year honor on Thursday. “If a team isn’t confident in their abilities having made the Final Four, then something is wrong. I’m sure Syracuse feels good about their chances, and so do we.”

SU senior guard Brandon Triche said because the Orange defense has been so consistent, “it has allowed us to get better offensively and get some easier points. That’s a key against a team like Michigan that likes to run off your misses and get up as many shots as possible.”

SU’s Jim Boeheim, making his fourth Final Four appearance as coach, considers this Michigan team “the best offensive squad left in the tournament. They’ve got a lot of good shooters, they take high-quality shots, they spread the ball around and then they attack the basket off their misses,’’ he said. “We’ve seen some talented offensive teams this season. But I’d say Michigan is the best.”

Led by Burke, who shoots nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, Michigan likes to attack from the perimeter. But Burke said you can’t settle for that against the SU zone.

“The key is finding different ways to attack,” he said. “Coach has put in a few different sets to hopefully help us get some uncontested looks. But then we’ve got to knock them down or the zone will just get tougher.”

Freshman sharp-shooter Nik Stauskas, who hit six 3-pointers in the win over Florida, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. also can knock down the three, so the Orange can’t just tag one shooter.

SU point guard Michael Carter-Williams said that has been his team’s strength all season in the zone. “We know where the shooters are, and have the confidence to get to them before they are ready to shoot,” he said.

Said SU forward C. J. Fair: “Stauskas likes to spot up from the corner. Our job is to make sure he doesn’t do that without a guy right in his face. That was our game plan against Indiana, and that worked pretty good.”

The Hoosiers were just 3-for-15 on 3-pointers and shot only 33 percent overall in the loss to SU in the regional semifinals.

And in four tournament games, SU is allowing a NCAA low 45.7 points per game.

Michigan coach John Beilein said it’s not enough for his team to make a lot of threes. “We’ve got to find other ways to score, like second-chance points, in transition or forcing turnovers,” he said. “If you live by the three against Syracuse, you’ll probably die from the three.”

His club has also been enhanced by the play of late from freshman center Mitch McGary, who has averaged 17 points and eight rebounds in his four NCAA starts.

Syracuse’s offense has been improving steadily since that debacle in the Big East regular-season finale at Georgetown.

“We’re still not where we want to be in terms of execution, but we’re getting closer,” Triche said. “Having played some of the great defenses in the country this year has helped us become comfortable with any defense we see.”

For most of the season, Michigan struggled on defense. But the Wolverines have tightened things up considerably in the NCAA Tournament, allowing just 63 points a game.

“We feel like we’re defending better the last few games because we’re working harder at that end,” Hardaway Jr. said. “Our coaches have really stressed team defense and it’s started to pay off.”

SU’s big guards, the 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams and the 6-4 Triche, have had field days against undersized defenders in the Orange’s NCAA run.

Whether they can continue that against the 6-0 Burke and company remains to be seen.

“We usually have an advantage against any guards we face because of our length,” Triche said. “I’m not sure Michigan has faced anybody with our overall length, so it’s going to be an adjustment for that, at least at first.”

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