By Anthony Rushing – (Photo of Syracuse celebrating winning the regional last weekend – @Cuse_MBB)
Syracuse will look to continue their magical run through the NCAA tournament as they take on North Carolina in the late-night portion of the National Semifinals, Saturday in Houston. The winner moves on to the national title game Monday night.
In order to track the story of the tenth-seeded Orange, in this tournament, one would have to rewind to Selection Sunday. Syracuse, a team which started this season with head coach Jim Boeheim serving a nine-game suspension as a result of an NCAA investigation, struggled mightily down the stretch. The Orange were losers of five of their last six games, including their ACC Tournament opener. The selection committee, despite the contrasting arguments of many across the nation, still decided Syracuse showed enough to make the field of 68 teams. Three weeks later, they’re in the Final Four.
The number one seed Tar Heels have hit their stride as the clear front-runners. North Carolina, along the way to Houston, dismantled FGCU, Providence, Indiana and Notre Dame. The Tar Heels offense has been clicking, they’re averaging over 80 points per game. Yes, they gave up 85 points to Indiana, but they scored 101 points. 6’10” Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, along with 6’8” Justin Jackson, are the best frontline in the nation. Johnson, an All-American, has fueled the Tar Heels attack and he’s capable of lighting up the scoreboard. This team, was looked at as the best in the nation for much of the season, throughout this tournament they’re playing like it.
Syracuse, like any low seed most likely would have to do in March, has overcome adversity along every stop on their road to the Final Four. The Orange knocked off higher seeded Dayton to ignite their run. They followed that up with a victory over Middle Tennessee, the team which put 90 points up against Michigan State, and held the Blue Raiders to just 50 points. Syracuse would then knock off Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, this led to their Elite Eight battle with number one seed Virginia. The Orange, sparked by freshman Malachi Richardson and freshman Tyler Lydon, went on a 25-4 run to overtake Virginia and advance to Houston.
North Carolina will want to get out and run or get the ball into the post and let their big men go to work on an undersized Syracuse team. What the Orange lack in size, they more than makeup for in hustle. Boeheim’s zone defense has been their calling card on defense for many years, this tournament has been no different. In each of Syracuse’s four tournament wins, they’ve taken away the primary weapon of their opponents with their zone defense in full swing.
These two ACC teams met twice this season, the Tar Heels came away winners in both matchups. North Carolina has seen Syracuse’s zone defense and head coach Roy Williams has figured out ways to either get around it or go over it by utilizing his bigs.
The difference in this game could be how well Syracuse shoots the basketball in Houston. The Orange, much like Villanova and Oklahoma, love to shoot it from long distance. The dimensions of NRG Stadium, however, is not anywhere near a shooter’s paradise. Meanwhile North Carolina doesn’t look to the three-point shot as their first or second option on offense, but Marcus Paige has been shooting the ball well and with confidence throughout the tournament.
Syracuse has had a great run and, despite the two regular season losses to North Carolina, could find a way to keep this one close enough to make it anyone’s game in the final minutes. Roy Williams won’t let his players lose focus and there’s too many weapons on this team to contain. If Paige finds the range this weekend, along with the continued dominance of the frontline, North Carolina will find themselves in the national title game.