The North Carolina Tar Heels were expected to be playing in the Final Four. After all, the Tar Heels were named the No.2 overall seed when the NCAA Tournament field was unveiled on March 13. While many expected North Carolina to be playing in Houston on April 2, no one thought the Syracuse Orange would also represent the ACC in the Final Four.
Michigan State losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round certainly helped the Orange. But with victories over Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and Virginia in the Elite Eight, Syracuse has proven to the naysayers that this Orange team did belong in the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday will be the third meeting between these familiar foes with North Carolina winning the previous two. The Tar Heels beat Syracuse on the road 84-73 on Jan. 9 and later won on their own home court, 75-70, on Feb. 29, which was senior night for guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson.
Final Four: No. 10 Syracuse Orange (23-13) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (32-6)
When: 8:49 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: NRG Stadium (Houston)
Line: North Carolina -9.5
Keys for Syracuse
Syracuse has the athleticism to make it a game with North Carolina, but the Orange will likely struggle with the Tar Heels’ length. The Orange rank 337th in the nation in defensive rebounding, so they will need to tighten up their 2-3 zone to prevent the Tar Heels from getting second-chance opportunities.
Syracuse also will need to hit shots from outside. The Orange take 42.2 percent of their shots from the perimeter, so not making them could make for a long night at NRG Stadium. Malachi Richardson was 3-of-7 from the arc against Virginia and the Orange will need him and Michael Gbinije to be efficient on offense if they're going to pull off the upset.
Keys for North Carolina
North Carolina will need to continue to lock down on defense as the Tar Heels have in their four Tournament wins, all by double digits. They also will need to use their big men to their advantage against the shorter Orange players.
The Tar Heels feature plenty of size, boasting a front line that features 6-foot-10 All-American forward Brice Johnson. Carolina’s leading scorer and rebounder is joined by Kennedy Meeks (6-10), Isaiah Hicks (6-9), Justin Jackson (6-8) and Joel James (6-11) as the primary frontcourt rotation. DaJuan Coleman is the only significant contributor on Syracuse’s roster who can match up size-wise (6-9) with the Tar Heels’ big men, but he averages just 17.5 minutes per game.
Much like against Notre Dame when North Carolina shot 72 percent on their two-point attempts, expect the Tar Heels to pound Syracuse inside to take advantage of its size and capitalize on second-chance opportunities.
North Carolina is 2-0 against Syracuse this season, but the Orange are playing with more confidence than those previous matchups. In the Tar Heels’ two victories they forced the Orange to shoot the ball from outside and those long-range attempts just weren’t falling. Syracuse shot below 30 percent from three-point land in both games, so look for the Tar Heels to use the same formula Saturday night.
It will be hard for the Orange to duplicate their impressive second half performance against the Cavaliers. North Carolina's size and quickness will be too much for Syracuse to handle for 40 minutes.
Prediction: North Carolina 88, Syracuse 74
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.