Two months ago, if I were tell you that North Carolina (32-6) was going to make the Final Four in Houston, you would’ve agreed that it was at least likely. But if I were to tell you that Syracuse (23-13) would be playing in that same Final Four, you might ask if I had just bumped my head. Yet, here we are.
All season long, Carolina has looked like a national title contender. The Tar Heels have a Hall of Fame coach, great guard play, fantastic big men, depth, and multiple ways to hurt you offensively.
The Orange, on the other hand, have looked like anything but a title contender — until now. They too have a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Boeheim, but Boeheim was suspended for nine games to start the ACC season. The Orange actually lost their first four ACC games and five of their last six, and somehow found a spot in this Tournament — much to the chagrin of the college basketball media — self included.
So now, we have the Final Four matchup between two college basketball blue bloods. Here are five X-factors to keep an eye on while you’re watching on Saturday night.
Tempo is one of the more popular analytics in college basketball — and we’re going to see two different styles in tempo between North Carolina and Syracuse. The Tar Heels can play at both break-neck speeds and at a half-court, “run your motion offense” type of pace. Typically, Carolina only uses about half the shot clock before its possession ends (15.4 seconds), and they rank 62nd in adjusted offensive tempo. Currently, Carolina ranks as the No. 1 offense in terms of efficiency, a testament to the Heels’ balanced attack.
Carolina’s attack starts with guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II. Paige doesn’t turn the ball over and does a great job of distributing, especially on the break. But the highlight of Carolina’s pace isn’t the guards, but the big men. National player of the year candidate Brice Johnson and fellow forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks all get up and down the hardwood very well.
On the other side, there is Syracuse’s renown, aggressive 2-3 zone. The question is how will the Orange’s zone translate against Carolina’s great transition offense? Syracuse’s zone is harassing, forcing teams to work for the best shot they can find, wasting precious ticks off the shot clock. According to KenPom, Syracuse’s defense forces opponents to use close to 20 seconds of the shot clock on average.
2. Marcus Paige
Paige came into his senior season as the preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year, and his performance was keeping pace with his accolades through December. Once January and ACC play rolled around, Paige’s shot had gone array, as he was shooting merely 38.7 percent from the field and only 32.4 percent from deep.
The shooting woes transformed Paige’s game on the fly. Paige went from premiere perimeter scorer to a distributor and prime defender. Truth be told, he didn’t have to be the go-to guy on such a well-rounded and deep Carolina team. But now, Paige is back to being an offensive weapon, scoring in double figures in his last six games, and knocking down threes at a 48 percent clip in the Tournament.
3. Offensive Rebounding
Much has been made about North Carolina’s frontcourt, and rightfully so, as its collection of big men are a force. And that force could have a heyday against the Orange on the offensive glass. Syracuse ranks 337th in defensive rebounding, allowing teams to gobble up offensive boards at a near 35 percent clip. In turn, Carolina is phenomenal at grabbing offensive boards, rebounding their misses 40 percent of the time, good enough for third in the nation.
Carolina is averaging 12.5 offensive rebounds per game in the Tournament, while the Orange are allowing more than 10. When it comes to cleaning the glass, it starts with Carolina’s Johnson. The All-American averages 9.8 rebounds per game and pulled down three offensive boards per game in ACC play. Rebounding for Carolina doesn’t end with Johnson, as the Heels have six players that average double figures in rebounds per 40 minutes.
If ‘Cuse wants its unlikely run to continue, giving the most efficient offense in the nation extra possessions won’t be the answer.
4. Syracuse Shooting
The biggest key for Syracuse to maintain this improbable Final Four run is the Orange are going to have to shoot lights out, which figures to be easier said than done in Houston. NRG Stadium has been not been kind to shooters in its brief history. According to Sports Illustrated’s Ted Keith, the last time the Final Four was in Houston in 2011, teams shot just 34.3 from the field and 28.1 from three. Flat-out awful.
The Orange can’t matchup with the Heels in the paint. Carolina has too much talent and too much depth. Where Syracuse has to succeed is behind the three-point arc, where more than 42 percent of the team’s shots have come from. Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson have each attempted more than 215 three-pointers this season, and more than half of Cooney’s and Richardson’s field goal attempts have been from deep.
In short, the Orange love the deep ball, but shooting less than 30 percent, like they did against Carolina in their first two meetings, won’t suffice.
Finally, keep an eye on Syracuse’s freshman, stretch-four, Tyler Lydon. Lydon is the only Syracuse player who is shooting at least 40 percent from behind the arc. If he finds his range in Houston, it could open up the floor for Gbinijie and others via dribble penetration or interior passing.
5. Keep Your Composure
North Carolina has won its past nine games, a stretch that includes the Tar Heels clinching the ACC regular season championship, claiming the conference tournament and making it to Houston for the Final Four. They have averaged 73.5 points per game during this span and have scored 83 points or more in each of their four NCAA Tournament victories. The Heels are well coached, well rounded, deep, relentless on offense, and gritty on defense, as they have won each Tournament game in impressive fashion. This North Carolina team is playing like the national title contender that Williams has been designing for several seasons. This is exactly where the Heels belong.
Boeheim’s Orange have used their pressure 2-3 zone defense to stifle opponents in the NCAA Tournament, allowing only 101 points total in the first two rounds, and keeping Gonzaga (62 points) and Virginia (60 points) both in check while orchestrating comeback wins to get to the Final Four.
The chances of ‘Cuse playing a perfect game against Carolina are slim, so when things don’t go the Orange’s way, they have to maintain composure — something they’ve done this Tournament, but not necessarily this season. After trailing at halftime in their last two games, the Orange have rallied back to beat teams better than themselves, but now Syracuse faces its biggest hurdle yet in North Carolina.