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Mitch McGary leads Michigan past Syracuse, into the title game

Apr 6, 2013, 11:47 PM EDT

Michigan v Syracuse Getty Images

ATLANTA — That vaunted Syracuse zone, the one that held Indiana and Marquette to a combined 89 points last weekend, did it’s job, at least on the perimeter. Michigan’s star point guard Trey Burke — that’s National Player of the Year Trey Burke to you — finished with seven points, shooting 1-8 from the floor.

Tim Hardaway Jr. wasn’t much better despite leading Michigan in scoring with 13 points; he needed 16 shots, hitting just four of them, to get those 13 points.

Nik Stauskas, the guy who went 6-6 from beyond the arc last Saturday while lighting up Florida to the tune of 22 points, was 0-5 on this Saturday night and finishing without a single point.

And Michigan won.

No. Seriously. They won. 61-56.

That’s what happens when Mitch McGary, who has been the breakout star of the 2013 NCAA tournament, decides to channel his inner John Stockton. The Chesterton, IN, native finished with 10 points and 12 boards. He set the tone for the Wolverines defensively with two highlight reel blocks in the first minute of the game. He threw down a couple thunderous dunks. But where he made his real mark on this game was as a zone-buster.

McGary finished with six assists on Saturday night. That in and of itself doesn’t sound all that impressive, but think about this: McGary had 18 assists all season long prior to setting foot on the court at the Georgia Dome. He didn’t have a single assist in the first four games of the season. He had all of four assists when Big Ten play began on January 3rd.

It wasn’t just the fact that he made the passes, either. He was throwing no-look touch passes with his right hand. (He’s lefty, by the way.) He grabbed a rebound and led a 3-on-1 break, dropping off a pretty little bounce pass to Tim Hardaway Jr. for a layup.

How many people knew that he was capable of that?

“It was very … intriguing as we were developing the game plan against the zone,” Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander said after the game. To breakdown the Syracuse zone, you need to somehow get the ball into the high post. It can be via dribble penetration or it can be the result of a pass into the foul line area. It doesn’t matter. The ball just has to get there because it will either create an open 15-footer from the foul line or a high-low pass for a layup. The key? Having a big man versatile enough to be able to make that pass or make that shot. Why do you think Otto Porter was so successful against Syracuse this season?

Mitch McGary isn’t Otto Porter, or so we thought.

“When the ball gets in the high post, there was two things happening,” Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara said after the game. “We weren’t active enough from the guard position to keep it out of the high post, and then when it was getting in there, we werent active enough with the forwards to take away the dump pass.”

McGary made those dump passes. Maybe he is like Otto Porter after all.

“Did you ever think,” Alexander said, “that Mitch McGary would lead Michigan in assists over Trey Burke?” Not in a game that the Wolverines won. “I’m shocked.”

As are the rest of us, but the development is evidence of a point that the Wolverines made on Friday: the game is slowing down for McGary. He’s beginning to learn that basketball isn’t simply a game that has to be played at 100 mph. Nothing about the way McGary plays is nuanced; I don’t think he’s ever even heard the word ‘finesse’. But his understanding of Michigan’s system — the way that he can read the defense and know what is the right play to make — is where he has made the biggest strides this season.

“I consider myself a good passer,” McGary said.

McGary is still a bully. Michigan’s defense on Michael Carter-Williams and James Southerland is what won them this game. The tone on that end was set by McGary’s blocks at the beginning of the game. He still grabbed five offensive rebounds. He still was the most physical presence in the paint.

But more proof that he’s beginning to learn how to play the game is bad news for the Wolverines.

While it may win them a national title, it’s looking increasingly less likely that they’ll have McGary for another season.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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