By Chris Molicki
North Carolina. Oklahoma. Villanova. Syracuse?
Yep, there’s your Final Four. A team that looked like vulnerable at times because it can’t shoot. A team that relied too much on the three-point shot and one player. A team that lost in the finals of a conference tournament that is no longer considered a “power conference.” And a team that ended their regular season losing five of six games, and many people chirping that shouldn’t get in.
As bizarre of a Final Four it is, it almost makes sense. This year’s tournament was mind-boggling in so many ways. Buzzer beaters by Northern Iowa and Wisconsin. Impossible upsets from Arkansas-Little Rock and Middle Tennessee State. The most incredible comeback anyone has ever witnessed from Texas A&M.
And now we’re left with four. No Kansas. No Michigan St. No Virginia. Just the Tar Heels, Sooners, Wildcats, and Orange. Let’s break down the matchups.
Oklahoma vs. Villanova: This game is probably going to be the more exciting of the two, which is why it’s odd that it’s the first game. You’ve got Villanova’s defense that has completely stifled its tournament opponents, including Iowa (once a national title contender), Miami (one of the better backcourts in the country), and Kansas (arguably the best team in the country). In this national semifinal game, they get their greatest test yet: the country’s best player, Buddy Hield.
Oklahoma keys to winning: Hield has been on an insane streak that’s somehow lasted all season, so you can’t count out the possibility of him putting the team on his back and dropping 40 to win. It’s happened before in the tournament. Kemba Walker did it. So did Shabazz Napier. Buddy could just be Buddy and win the whole damn thing. But in reality, he’s going to need some help. This Nova defense is 7th in the nation via KenPom, and Jay Wright has a full week to scheme against Buddy, run him off the three point line, and make him put the ball on the floor. Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard are going to have to make major contributions to help alleviate some of the pressure. Both have had good tournaments so far, but Cousins fell off a bit in the second weekend. Anything they can get from Ryan Sprangler and Khadeem Lattin down low will help too. In addition to a balanced scoring attack, the Sooners need to be on top of their game at the other end of the floor. Everyone focuses on Buddy and the other scorers, but this team is top-15 in the nation defensively via KenPom. Villanova has a bunch of guys they can go to to hit a shot (four of their starters shoot over 35% from 3). The Oklahoma defense will need to swarm them if they want to win.
Villanova keys to winning: Josh Hart is a top-20 player in the country, Kris Jenkins has been on a roll, minus the Kansas game, and Ryan Arcidiacono is the perfect kind of poised, do-it-all leader that so many championship teams have. But a I’ve felt all season that Daniel Ochefu is the key to this team. Ochefu is such a mammoth down low and has the ability to bully pretty much anyone. But what he has this year that he didn’t have last year is a more sound offensive game. Ochefu knows his way around the basket and has become a very efficient scorer. This has taken the focus off the Villanova shooters, giving them better looks. Run the offense through your big man, Jay Wright! And speaking of big men, another key for the Wildcats is getting freshman Mikal Bridges on the floor as much as possible. Bridges has been on a scorching-hot defensive streak in the postseason, throwing his lanky arms into passing lines, diving for losing balls, and coming up with clutch steals. That length is something that’s hard to prepare for in the tournament, and it could make Oklahoma’s life hell.
Prediction-Villanova: The Wildcats’ defense is just unlike anything the Sooners have seen up to this point. All anyone remembers is Buddy torching Oregon, but they don’t mention how VCU gave them 40 minutes of hell and how even Cal State Bakersfield, a good defensive team, gave them trouble for a while. I’m sure Buddy will get his, but I’m afraid his supporting cast shrinks in the moment. Nova moves on to the title game.
North Carolina vs. Syracuse: If you told me two ACC teams would be duking it out in the Final Four, UNC-UVA would’ve been my guess. And that’s probably what should’ve happened. But the Orange rode a smothering press and a blazing-hot scoring run right to Houston over the Cavs. Now they face college basketball’s true giant.
North Carolina keys to winning: UNC has the superior talent to Syracuse by far. Their offense is light years ahead of the Orange’s. The Heels have the perfect zone breaker in Brice Johnson, who can shoot over the zone and pass the ball well. And they’ve been on a roll now, playing some of their best basketball. So if North Carolina just plays a decent game, they should win. I’d say their biggest key is playing with composure. Gonzaga wasn’t an easy matchup for Syracuse with Domantas Sabonis as a terror on the inside and Kyle Wiltjer a big on the perimeter. Virginia wasn’t an easy matchup either, with their elite passing through the zone finding Mike Tobey time and time again, and London Perrantes being on fire from deep. But they both cracked under the pressure of the Syracuse defense and press, precisely at the same time the Orange caught fire on offense. North Carolina needs to play a calm and collected 40 minutes of basketball to take care of business.
Syracuse keys to winning: I’m pretty exhausted hearing about the Syracuse zone defense (did you know Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone?), but I read a great article from ESPN’s Dana O’Neil that described how the zone is more than just a simple 2-3. Coach Jim Boeheim has made adjustments on his zone over the course of his career and over the course of individual games. And against a matchup like the Tar Heels, the Orange need to pack in the middle and dare them to shoot. I understand Marcus Paige has been shooting better as of late, and Joel Berry has been a crucial piece in the backcourt. But UNC remains an unexciting team shooting the basketball, and if I’m Boeheim, I’m collapsing on the foul line, letting them chuck, and hoping they miss. It’s going to be extremely tough for the Orange offense to keep up with North Carolina, and the last thing they want to do is get into a track meet. As a team that relies so much on three pointers, the formula for Syracuse is pretty simple: hope you’re hot and hope they’re not.
Prediction-North Carolina: It’s not impossible for Syracuse to win this game, but the size and talent of UNC is likely too much for the Orange to overcome. The Tar Heels have had a relatively easy road to get here, but they did impress me with their win over Indiana, in which they dominated what could be a borderline top-10 team. No offense, but I think Syracuse has been a bit fortunate so far. And I think this is where their luck runs out.
If the championship matchup is indeed Villanova vs. North Carolina, I have to go with the Tar Heels. As much as I think Nova’s defense will pose major problems for a team that struggles shooting the ball, the size is will be just too much for Ochefu. Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks are an absolute nightmare, and they should be enough to get the Heels to close out this year’s “One Shining Moment.”