January 18, 2018

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At the beginning of the tournament—heck, at the beginning of this season—seeing North Carolina, Villanova and Oklahoma in the Final Four wouldn’t have been a shock to the system of anyone that follows college basketball.

All three were in the AP Preseason Top 10 as well as the Postseason Top 10. They were considered three of the best in the country heading into the season and their outstanding play during 2015-2016 validated that.

Syracuse, on the other hand, is where the madness comes in.

Considered by many to be a surprise selection following a disappointing 19-13 season that saw head coach Jim Boeheim suspended the first nine games of the season due to NCAA violations, the Orangemen have rebounded to win four consecutive games in route to Houston for the Final Four.

But this is the kind of stuff we see in the NCAA Tournament every March. The randomness of a “lose and you’re out” scenario lends itself to these types of surprises and shredded brackets across America. But very few times does that surprise team actually exit the Final Four with a trophy. Since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, only three teams – 1985 #8 Villanova, 1988 #6 Kansas and 2014 #7 Connecticut – won the NCAA Tournament being seeded higher than 4th. The absolute best team may not always win, but its close more often than not.

The ties that bind these four very different teams together is that their journey to avoid a one-and-done in March hasn’t involved any players that will be one-and-done in an era where the “hired gun” from high school usually has a say in the National Championship on his way to the NBA. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson and Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson are the only two freshman starters in this year’s Final Four and it would be a surprise if either left for the NBA Draft.

As a comparison, last year’s Duke team that captured the National Championship had three starters alone that would depart after one year. This year, four teams relying heavily on senior leadership will be fighting it out to see who cuts down the nets Monday night in Houston.

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#2 Villanova Wildcats vs. #2 Oklahoma Sooners

Saturday’s first matchup will pit two teams that were each ranked no. 1 for three weeks this season and both had a legitimate argument for a no. 1 seed this year. Heading into the tournament, each was ranked in the Top 20 in both Offensive and Defensive Efficiency via KenPom.com and each would be a worthy champion.

Jay Wright’s Wildcats have been arguably the most impressive team in the tournament thus far. They defeated their first three opponents by at least 23 points and then took down the tournament’s overall no. 1 seed Kansas by forcing 16 turnovers and hitting 18-19 free throws to advance. There is no singular standout on this Villanova team. Five players average between nine and 15 points, five guys have drained at least 35 three-pointers and all eight members of their rotation have played at least 43 percent of the team’s minutes this season. They are deep, experienced and following their Round of 32 exit as the #1 seed in 2015, they seem poised and ready to make a move.

The straw that stirs the drink is senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. His numbers don’t jump off the page at you (12.3 PPG, 4.3 APG), but as an extension of Villanova head coach Wright, he commands the team, rarely makes mistakes and grinds out every possession on defense. Next to him is the future floor general of Villanova, Jalen Brunson, the freshman that has gotten better as the season has progressed. Josh Hart, the team’s leading scorer with 15.3 PPG, is deadly in the mid-range and South Regional MVP Kris Jenkins, at 6-foot-6, 240, can muscle up bigger players while still having a true shooting percentage of 61.6 percent largely from the perimeter.

In our BBALLBREAKDOWN season preview, we pinpointed 6-foot-11 center Daniel Ochefu as a key to the team’s success this season and that fact remains here. Ochefu finished in the Big East’s top 5 in field goal percentage, rebounds, and blocks and led the conference for three consecutive years in Defensive Rating via SportsReference.com. Bench pieces Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, and Darryl Reynolds are all good enough to start at other schools and Wright has no hesitation in using them regardless of score if the matchup fits. 

On the way to the Final Four, Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger has become the first head coach to lead five different teams to at least one win in the NCAA Tournament, but most of the talk surrounding his three-point bombing Sooner squad this past week has been about star guard Buddy Hield and his NBA prospects. Hield’s scintillating 37-point performance against no. 1 seed Oregon in the Elite Eight in which he drained eight three-pointers including a few from “Stephen Curry range” had armchair GMs everywhere creeping him up draft boards.  But in truth, Hield’s consensus First Team All-American performance this entire season has been equally impressive. Hield averaged 25.4 points per game, won his second consecutive Big XII Player of the Year Award, finished 8th in the nation in true shooting percentage (67 percent), was the only player to finish in the Top 25 nationally in both free throw and three-point percentage, and had the regular season’s signature performance setting an Allen Fieldhouse record for points by a road player with 46 in a triple overtime loss at Kansas.

But as much as the story seems to be about Hield right now, the Sooners are so much more. The experienced group (four players – Hield, Ryan Spanger, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard are three year starters) know each others’ tendencies and play extremely well together. Cousins and Woodard each have the ability to direct the offense but also shoot at least 42 percent from long range and each has knocked down at least 60 treys this season. Up front, Spangler and Khadeem Lattin provide the muscle that snags possession and prevent opponents’ buckets as the Sooners finished in the Top 40 nationally in opponents 2PT percent and block percentage. Spangler averages almost ten rebounds per game while also functioning as a key cog as a screener, passer and shooter in Oklahoma’s offense. Lattin’s contributions on offense are relegated to offensive boards and put-backs, but on defense, his 2.1 blocks per game create a significant barrier for the opposition. Christian James and Dante Buford are talented freshman wings off the bench, but the absence of center Akolda Manyang following the death of his brother, has shortened the Oklahoma rotation even more.

Though not in the same conference, Villanova and Oklahoma have the luxury of already playing each other early this season, though it was at a time before each team became what they are now. In a game at Pearl Harbor in November, the Sooners thumped the Wildcats 78-55 and it can largely be pointed at one factor: three-point shooting. Villanova went an astounding 4-32 from deep, while Oklahoma went 14-26 creating a 30-point deficit from long range alone. Suffice it to say, it’s unlikely that Villanova will be that cold again, but they could. And therein lies the issue.

Villanova is 28th in the nation in 3PA/FGA meaning they rely heavily on the three. The problem is that they are only 141st in three-point field goal percentage at 35.4 percent. Like Villanova, Oklahoma also likes to hang behind the three-point line finishing 60th in 3PA/FGA, but when they take it, they typically make it. The Sooners are 2nd nationally in three-point percentage at 42.8 percent, over 7 percent better than Villanova. The Wildcats taking a higher percentage of shots from deep at a lower success percentage than the Sooners means their performance from deep may be more sporadic. Oklahoma’s best defensive strategy would be to pack it in and let the Wildcats rely on the three-ball because Villanova’s real strength is attacking the paint.

If Villanova is going to kill you, and where they should focus their energy in spite of Oklahoma’s rim protectors, is attacking the paint and mid-range. Villanova finished 3rd in the nation in two-point percentage and 2nd in free-throw percentage which mitigates nights when they are off their game from three. As mentioned earlier, against Kansas in the regional final, the Wildcats shot only 4 for 18 from deep, but when you shoot 50 percent inside the arc and 95 percent from the line, the game can still be had. Pounding the paint and forcing the issue against a depleted Sooners front line seems a better strategy than relying on getting an advantage from three against a team that very rarely has an off night from that range. Feeding Ochefu in the post with Brunson and Arcidiacono attacking off ball screens would set Villanova on the right path.

When Oklahoma has the ball, much of the focus will be on Buddy Hield and I expect Josh Hart to draw the assignment. Hart finished first in the Big East in defensive win shares this season and though he is the team’s leading scorer, he is not depended on offensively the way Hield is. But as I mentioned earlier, the Sooners are not just Hield and it will be important for Villanova to remember Cousins and Woodard are deadly in their own right. Big nights from one or both of the supporting guards could spell doom for Wright’s crew.

Neither of these teams have a pronounced weakness and both are extremely talented teams worthy of a Final Four in any season, but I think the depth and versatility of Villanova pushes them into Monday’s night title game.

#1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. #10 Syracuse Orangemen

Saturday’s late game sees two very familiar conference foes face off for a third time this season. Though the Tar Heels were victorious in both matchups, their struggles from three-point range are magnified against the 2-3 zone, only to be rescued by their ability to crash the boards. For Syracuse to spring the upset, the Orange will need to play even better than they have in the tournament to this point.

Roy Williams’ Tar Heel teams have each had a core group that grows together through the years and is eventually measured by whether or not a title was brought home to Chapel Hill. There was the Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants group that beat Illinois for the 2005 title. Then there was the Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Ty Lawson squad that concluded their reign with a title in 2009. And finally, the Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, and John Henson group broke up before they could bring home the trophy. Now, this is the last chance for a group comprised of seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, juniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and sophomores Justin Jackson and Joel Berry. The bar has been set high as it always is for North Carolina.

This season, the 6’10’’ Johnson was named AP 1st-Team All-American and has been arguably the best player in the tournament thus far averaging 21 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 3.5 BPG. He is one of the best defensive rebounders in the country with a diverse offensive game that has developed steadily throughout his four years at Carolina. While Johnson has been the team’s best player, point guard Paige is its most important. He missed the first six games of the season with a foot injury, but has come back to have a steady, yet unspectacular season. His scoring has now dropped the last two seasons, but he continues to limit mistakes and now gets his teammates more involved. Muscle up front comes in the form of Meeks and Hicks, two large bodies that are also two of the best offensive rebounders in the country. On the perimeter, guards Berry and Theo Pinson, have both improved and found their niche while the X-factor remains swingman Justin Jackson. At 6’8’’, Jackson remains intriguing to NBA scouts, but he has yet to show the requisite consistency. He has the ability to get 20 any night, but has struggled from deep shooting only 28 percent from deep.

If a 10 seed’s entire seven-man rotation consists of players that were in the ESPN Top 100 coming out of high school, you are not allowed to call them a “Cinderella”. What you can call them is a surprise as a team with a ton of talent finally puts it together at the right time. Senior wing Michael Gbinije is their go-to-guy averaging 17.5 PPG and sharp-shooting fellow senior Trevor Cooney can get hot at a moment’s notice. Athletic forward Tyler Roberson can rarely be found outside the paint where he’s averaged over 11 RPG in the tournament and relies on his hustle and tenacity on the offensive boards (24th in the nation in OR percent) to generate offense. Six-foot-eight freshman sixth man Tyler Lydon provides a spark off the bench and thickly, build DaJuan Coleman mans the paint, but it’s freshman wing Malachi Richardson that provides the best hope for Syracuse. The skilled youngster shot only 36.5 percent from the field this season, but he caught fire against Virginia matching a season-high 23 points. The team is solid, but a Richardso firing on all cylinders makes this a different squad.

The teams’ first matchup at the Carrier Dome in January saw the teams locked up at halftime, followed by the Tar Heels busting out for 51 points in the second half led by Hicks who went 5-5 from the field and 11-13 from the free throw line. Neither team could hit from deep (3-16 for UNC, 9-31 from Syracuse), but when the Heels shoot 64 percent from inside the arc, that doesn’t matter. In their February matchup, a close game saw both teams struggle again from 3 (both under 25 percent), but North Carolina had five players score in double figures as they won 75-70. North Carolina didn’t play their best in either game, but neither did Syracuse leaving the door open for an Orangemen victory due to the inherent randomness of the tournament. How do they do it?   

Syracuse isn’t changing. They are going to play an aggressive, but disciplined 2-3 zone like they always have. This bodes well against a team like North Carolina that struggles from three (32.1 percent, 285th in the country) and Syracuse has succeeded in that area forcing Carolina under that shooting average in their first two matchups and finishing 13th nationally in three-point percentage allowed. They have length with Gbinjie, Coleman, Richardson, Lydon, Roberson all standing at least 6-foot-7 which could frustrate the Heels. On offense, Syracuse will need to again take advantage of North Carolina’s weakness with the three-pointer, this time defending it. The Tar Heels are 252nd in the nation defending the line and Gbinjie, Cooney and Richardson all knocked down at least 75 treys this season. If the Tar Heels struggles with the three-point line are coupled with a hot shooting night for the Orange, an upset could be brewing.

But where the 2-3 zone can get a little dicey is defensive rebounding in the half-court set. The Tar Heels are third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, getting 40 percent of available offensive boards, while Syracuse struggles ranking 337th in defensive rebounding percentage. This wide divide creates a hefty opportunity for second chance points for North Carolina. Based on efficiency numbers from KenPom.com, North Carolina is the best offensive team in the nation and it really boils down to three things: They love to get out in transition, they don’t turn the ball over and they are ready and willing to do the necessary dirty work to get additional opportunities following misses.

When it comes down to it, the Tar Heels are talented, experienced, athletic, and prepared to bring a title back to campus. The BBALLBREAKDOWN crew selected North Carolina as our preseason no. 1 and our eventual National Champion. We don’t see the Orangemen stopping that from happening.

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Jeff Feyerer

Jeff is a former basketball coach, sports marketing professional and writer, currently working as school financial administrator in Chicago. In addition to work for BBALLBREAKDOWN, he writes for Nylon Calculus, plays with spreadsheets, tries to defend college basketball and looks forward to the Fred Hoiberg era. Follow his musings on Twitter at @jfey5.

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