North Carolina and Syracuse face off Saturday night in a familiar Final Four matchup, but their trips to this point couldn’t be more different. It has been a track of polar opposites, a tale of two cities if you will. Differences aside, both teams sit one win away from a date with destiny in the National Championship game.
North Carolina entered the season ranked number one overall in the AP’s preseason polls. The Tar Heels spent the entire year dealing with the burden of trying to meet those high expectations. Roy Williams’ squad proved up to the task. North Carolina won both the ACC regular season and post-season tournament crowns. They parlayed that success into a number-one seed in March Madness play. A team laden with NBA talent, UNC has cruised their way to the Final Four, winning every game by double digits with a 16-point average margin of victory.
Syracuse on the other hand, began the season under a cloud of uncertainty. The Orange declared themselves ineligible for postseason play following the 2015 season as part of a self-imposed sanction, attempting to lessen the impending punishment for several NCAA rules violations. As part of the NCAA reprimand, Jim Boeheim was suspended for the first 9 games of ACC conference play. Syracuse dug an early hole in Boeheim’s absence, starting ACC play with a less than stellar 4-5 record. The Orange narrowly made the NCAA Tournament field after a disastrous 1-5 skid to end the regular season and a first round exit in the ACC Tournament.
From the outset of the NCAA Tournament fans and prognosticators were extremely high on North Carolina’s chances to reach the Final Four. Out of over 13 million brackets submitted to ESPN.com a robust 48.8 percent of submissions had UNC reaching the Final Four. UNC was also the third most popular pick to win it all, with 14.6 percent of brackets predicting the Tar Heels to cut down the nets in Houston. Little more than a handful of semi-delusional Syracuse fans had the Orange slated this far. The Orange were an underwhelming pick to even win their first game, a fairly even 7-10 matchup, after barely squeaking into the tournament.
The Tar Heels have blazed a far more conventional path to Houston than the Orange. After dispatching 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast they blew through legit major conference foes Providence, Indiana, and Notre Dame. Syracuse’s run was aided a considerable amount of fortune circumstance.
The Orange flummoxed Atlantic 10 foe Dayton in their first game before being gifted a meeting with 15-seed Middle Tennessee State in the second round. The Blue Raiders pulled off easily the most shocking upset of the tournament, defeating 2-seed Michigan State in the first round of the Midwest Regional, shredding millions of brackets in the process. In the Sweet 16, Syracuse was pitted against 11-seeded Gonzaga, a team on an overachieving run of their own. The Orange faced their stiffest competition in the Elite Eight against 1-seed Virginia. The Orange trailed by 16 at halftime before riding a miraculous comeback to a 68-62 victory and a trip to the Final Four.
At this point the journey no longer matters, only the mission at hand. The UNC Tar Heels and Syracuse Orange are set to square off for the third time this season, UNC having won both previous meetings. Of little surprise the Orange enter as heavy underdogs. The Tar Heels are currently listed as 10-point favorites, and for good reason.
Syracuse’s tournament success is due in large part to employing an uncommon defensive scheme. With an overwhelming prevalence of man to man defense played across college basketball, teams who don’t often face zones are unfamiliar with the tactics necessary to handle Jim Boeheim’s famed 2-3 defense. With limited time afforded for preparation during tournament play, Syracuse’s unique style becomes a distinct advantage. The Tar Heels have already faced it twice.
There are three key components to dismantling a zone defense, outside shooting, talented bigs, and pace. Unfortunately for the Orange, UNC possess all three. Joel Berry and Marcus Paige can stroke it from deep. Despite a down season, the much-maligned Paige has found his touch of late, shooting 48 percent from 3 point land in the tournament.
Brice Johnson is a skilled mid-range shooter and an excellent passer from the elbow area. He piled up 8 assists in the team’s first win against Syracuse. He’s also dynamic athlete to roam the baseline in search of cutting opportunities. He’s been a monster in the tournament, averaging 21 points a game while shooting 63 percent from the floor. The Tar Heels have a deep front court. In addition to Johnson, they trot out three other forwards capable of banging for buckets down low Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Isaiah Hicks.
The last cog is pace. When execution is off or shots simply aren’t falling, another effective counter measure is to beat the defense up the floor before they have a chance to set. North Carolina is scary in transition with the athletes who thrive in a quick back and forth tempo. Getting in a track meet with the Tar Heels is a losing proposition.
In a contest between familiar foes the Tar Heels own an overwhelming advantage. They swept the season series, deploy better athletes, and know the keys to beating the Syracuse zone. For these reasons I’m picking UNC to win and advance to the championship. It’s about time the clock strikes midnight on Syracuse’s Cinderella run, and the Orange turn back into the pumpkin they rode in on.