The NCAA tournament field has been whittled down to the Final Four and the North Carolina Tarheels are the only remaining number one seed, as the tournament heads to Houston for the final weekend of the college basketball season.
In a tournament that seemed to offer more upsets than usual, six of the top eight overall seeds made it to the Elite Eight. Number one seeds Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Oregon all advanced to the Elite Eight and two seeds Villanova, and Oklahoma were also among the teams vying for a spot in the Final Four along with sixth seeded Notre Dame and tenth seeded Syracuse.
North Carolina played Notre Dame for the third time this season after most recently defeating the Fighting Irish by 30 points in the ACC tournament. Led by Bryce Johnson, the Tarheels were able to pull away 88-74 to secure their spot in the Final Four.
Syracuse produced the only real upset of the Elite Eight with their 68-62 come from behind victory over Virginia. Villanova and Oklahoma were technically two seeds, but they were in the mix for one seeds until the brackets were released, so it was not surprising that they were able to defeat Kansas and Oregon respectively.
North Carolina’s size and depth overpowered Notre Dame, and are the primary reasons they will be favored against Syracuse. The Tarheels are arguably the deepest and most balanced team of the remaining four. Bryce Johnson and Marcus Paige are clearly the leaders of the team and generally need to play well for the team to win but, on any given night the heels get significant contributions from a number of other players. Point guard Joel Berry has played well throughout the tournament. His three point shooting has been a major boost to a team that is not known for shooting the deep ball particularly well. Forward Justin Jackson has been prototypical glue guy who provides great defense and rebounding, as well as opportunistic scoring from different areas on the court. Kennedy Meeks has been inconsistent at times throughout the season, but his big frame and scoring touch were too much for Notre Dame and will continue to be necessary in the Final Four.
Reserves Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, and Isaiah Hicks could be starters on many other teams and ensure that there is no drop off when coach Roy Williams inserts them in to the game. The ability to rotate such talented players is a luxury that not many teams have.
The Tarheels will face fellow ACC foe Syracuse in the Final Four. The teams are very familiar with one another, having played twice in the regular season. UNC won both meetings, but only beat Syracuse by five points in Chapel Hill on February 29th. Syracuse is a dangerous team. Led by second team ALL-ACC performer Michael Gbinije, the Orange are a long and athletic team who have the athletes to match up with any team in the country. Many people think their tenth seed was too low for such a talented squad. Syracuse had some rough patches throughout the season. Most noticeably, they lost the first four games of conference play while coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for self-reported NCAA violations dating back to 2001.
Coach Boeheim and Syracuse are famous for their zone defense. The rangy and athletic Syracuse players cover a lot of ground and force teams to take difficult and contested shots over long defenders. Gbinije is a 6’7″ small forward who has converted to point guard. He is a do everything type player that affects the game in many ways. Freshman shooting guard Malachi Richardson was the hero of Syracuse’s win over Virginia, scoring 23 points in a myriad of ways.
North Carolina will want to establish Bryce Johnson and Kennedy Meeks down low. Syracuse will want to force the Tarheels to shoot from the perimeter and negate their talent in the post. If North Carolina can play inside-out and knock down their perimeter shots, they should be able to handle the Orange. It is hard for any team to beat an opponent as talented as Syracuse three times in one season, but that is exactly what the Tarheels will have to do if they want to continue their run to the National Championship.
Buddy Hield of Oklahoma was a man on fire in the Sooners’ Elite Eight contest with Oregon. Hield scored 37 points and looked very much like the Player of the Year candidate he has been all season. Villanova will have their hands full with the Sooners. The match-up between Hield and Villanova’s Josh Hart will be intriguing and could determine the outcome of the game. Both players are talented and can take over the game at any time. Oklahoma looks to be the more talented team, but the Wildcats’ determination cannot be underestimated.
This tournament has been one of the more exciting tournaments in recent memory. Still, it would be no surprise if any of the four remaining teams, except for Syracuse, cut down the nets next Monday. I expect North Carolina and Oklahoma to take care of business in the semi-finals, setting up a riveting game between two exciting teams in the in the National Championship.