We’ve made it; it’s time for the Final Four.
All four of the one-seeds in the big dance made it to the Elite 8; only the North Carolina Tar Heels survived and advanced to play in Houston this weekend. The Orange of Syracuse are the lowest seeded team remaining (10) and got to the Final Four by way of a stunning comeback win over Virginia on Sunday; they trailed 54-39 with under ten minutes to play and rallied for a 68-62 win.
Villanova and Oklahoma are both 2-seeds who essentially beat chalk on their way to Houston. With Elite 8 wins over Kansas and Oregon, respectively, both teams advanced and will play each other in the first game on Saturday.
Before we get into the previews, let’s talk a little bit about the venue we’re playing in because it will play a role in the outcomes of the games.
The stadium, then known as Reliant Stadium, served as host of the 2011 Final Four; ironically, this year’s semifinals will take place on the same date as that year’s (April 2). The four teams remaining at the end of that season (UConn, Kentucky, Butler, VCU) combined to shoot 36.2% on three-point attempts during the regular season.
During Final Four weekend, though, the teams shot just 28.1% (36-128) from deep. The shooting woes were bookended by Butler’s 12-64 (19%!) performance from the field in the championship game, a 53-41 loss to the Huskies. The three games were arguably some of the worst in the history of the Final Four. That’s not all, though.
The stadium also hosted the South Regional’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games last year. The last four teams in the region were Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA, and Utah, a quartet that combined to shoot 38.9% from downtown in the regular season. But, just like in 2011, the teams struggled from behind the line to the tune of a combined 23-86 in three games.
I get it; shooting in a dome has always been harder than shooting in an arena. The rim is more difficult to locate at the outset (this sounds like a joke but basketball players who have shot in domes have said as much) and there are more people, A.K.A. more distractions, for a player’s eyes to wander to in the course of a jump shot. The arrangement is unfair; the NCAA sacrifices the Final Four’s quality of play in order to fit more people into the event. This is why every Final Four game should probably be in an arena rather than a dome, but don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen.
With all of this being said, here is a preview of Saturday’s national semifinals.
Semifinal #1: (2) Villanova vs. (2) Oklahoma
Oklahoma and Villanova actually played each other in the regular season, with the Sooners winning a 78-55 blowout on December 7. The neutral site game was played at Pearl Harbor to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the start of the Pearl Harbor bombing and the beginning of World War II.
While the game was played on a neutral site, Oklahoma and imminent Wooden Award Winner Buddy Hield had no issue finding their stroke from deep. The Sooners shot 14-26 from downtown; most significantly, Hield and Isaiah Cousins shot a combined 8-13 on threes in the blowout win. The Wildcats, on the other hand, struggled mightily from behind the arc to the tune of shooting 4-32 on such attempts.
This is the main question with this game: is it more likely that a team shoots 14-26 or 4-32 from three? Based on the fact that we’re playing in NRG Stadium, I’d say the latter; the dome arrangement does favor one team over the other.
While Nova attempted more threes in the regular season and threes account for a higher percentage of the Wildcats’ shots, the dome favors them because of their excellent defense, which has allowed just 63 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. In the regular season, do you know how many points the team allowed per game? 63. It’s serendipity, baby!
Holding Oklahoma to 63 will be a difficult task if only because of the fast pace both teams espouse. The game will move up and down the floor very quickly and have a lot of excitement. The catch? There will be a lot of misses.
You can blame NRG Stadium and the NCAA for that. However, with the dome on their side and their defense cracking down, I’ll take Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, and the Wildcats to pull the minor upset and advance to Monday night’s title game.
Villanova 71, Oklahoma 65
Semifinal #2: (10) Syracuse vs. (1) North Carolina
Syracuse shouldn’t be in the tournament. — many analysts
That was the predominant thought when Syracuse got into the NCAA Tournament as a 10-seed, thus completely bypassing the Dayton play-in games reserved for the last four teams in the field. As for me, I agreed with those analysts: I would have put Monmouth in the dance over the Orange. However, Syracuse made it, and what has transpired since has validated their existence in the tournament.
That being said, referring to their run as “Cinderella” would be a gross mischaracterization. After handily defeating Dayton 70-51 in their first-round game, the team destroyed 15-seed Middle Tennessee State and rallied against 11-seed Gonzaga.
However, in the Elite 8, the Orange trailed Virginia 54-39 with under ten minutes remaining. What happened next may not have been a miracle, but it really felt like one; the team rallied with a 25-4 run and won the game to advance to this weekend’s Final Four.
Syracuse is the underdog in this Final Four, but calling them a “cinderella” is misleading.
And academic fraud jokes aside, they match up very well with the North Carolina Tar Heels. Carolina’s biggest weakness in the regular season was three-point shooting; the 2-3 Zone of the Orange is designed precisely to make the opponent shoot threes and keep the ball out of the paint. With shooting already being a difficult task, the Orange defense may be able to keep the ball out of the hands of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks.
That being said, the Heels have turned their biggest weakness into a strength this March. After shooting 32% from deep in the regular season, the team has improved to 38% from behind in the arc in the NCAA Tournament; this resurgence has been led chiefly by senior Marcus Paige. I personally jinxed the team last week by saying they are the tournament’s most dangerous team; that’s obviously true now, considering that they are the only one-seed to make the Final Four.
Let’s not forget another thing, too: Syracuse isn’t that much better at making shots, either. In fact, their shooting percentages are only slightly better than those of the Tar Heels. Syracuse will try to slow this one down, though, and win the game with their defense. And they just might pull it off. The 2-3 Zone is difficult for even the best teams to handle; North Carolina might be the best team in America and even they aren’t immune. It will be interesting to see if the team can get its big men the ball early in the game to spread out the zone; this is likely the biggest key to victory for both teams.
And if North Carolina can do this, they should be able to win. If the swarming defense of the Orange is able to keep the Tar Heels far away from the basket, I don’t just believe they can win. I think they will. Either way, this game is probably the better of the two semifinal tilts and has the potential to be a thriller.
But my bet is on the Heels to shoot just well enough to win and advance to Monday night’s championship game.
North Carolina 69, Syracuse 66
Please let me know what I got right and wrong in the comments section!