March Madness: Breaking down the Final Four matchups in Houston
After 64 NCAA tournament games, the Final Four is set.
Oklahoma (29-7) meets Villanova (33-5) in the opener on Saturday in Houston. North Carolina (32-6) faces ACC rival Syracuse (23-13) in the nightcap.
Both matchups are repeats from the regular season. The Sooners, the No. 2 seed in the West, crushed Villanova by 23 points in Hawaii on Dec. 7th.
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UNC, the lone No. 1 seed still alive, swept a pair from Syracuse during the regular season. The Tar Heels won 84-73 in the Carrier Dome on Jan. 9 and 75-70 in the Smith Center on Feb. 29. The Orange - which knocked off No. 1 Virginia to win the Midwest on Sunday - is the first No. 10 to make the Final Four in tournament history, and only the fourth double-digit seed.
Here’s a closer look at the matchups:
Oklahoma vs. Villanova, 6:09 p.m., TBS
These teams are similar. Both revolve around a strong core of perimeter players who embrace the long range shot while also possessing sufficient frontcourt firepower.
Oklahoma is top 15 on both ends of the court in adjusted efficiency and second in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (42.8).
The Sooners have an iconic guard in 6-4 senior Buddy Hield, who received a salute from his hero Kobe Bryant during a tournament-best 37 point outburst in the 80-68 West Regional final victory over Oregon. In the second round, Hield scored 36 in a four-point win over VCU.
Oklahoma has been tested, going 12-6 against the KenPom Top 50 and has three seniors and a junior who have made 104 consecutive starts.
After subpar shooting during the regular season, Villanova is scalding the nets in the tournament. It is 37-of-80 (46 percent) beyond-the-arc during four games, and that includes a 4-of-18 clunker in the South Regional final defeat of No. 1 overall seed Kansas.
That performance revealed Villanova’s balance. The Wildcats are third in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage (56.3) and second in free throw percentage (78.4). So while 43 percent of its field goal attempts are launched from long range, Villanova can score in a variety of ways and generates 1.15 points per trip (12th in the nation).
Essentially, five Wildcats average double figures scoring - freshman guard Jalen Brunson scores 9.8 ppg.
Worth watching: Will Villanova’s Josh Hart guard Hield? And is it fair to expect one man to handle the assignment? At 6-5, Hart has a slight height advantage over college basketball’s most lethal scorer. He also possesses the strength and toughness to pester Hield, who committed 11 turnovers in the Sooners’ NCAA wins over Texas A&M and Oregon. Hield is talented enough to score his average of 26 against solid defense and backcourt mates Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard offer ample reinforcement.
Prediction: Oklahoma 75, Villanova 72
North Carolina vs. Syracuse, approx. 8:49 p.m., TBS
Frankly, the Tar Heels appear unguardable right now.
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UNC just frightened college basketball fans from across the Hoosier State in Philadelphia last weekend, scoring 1.42 points per possession against Indiana and 1.54 (!) against Notre Dame. The 3-point problem that lingered most of the season (285th in nation) appears solved as well. UNC hit 15-of-33 from deep in Philly, and most importantly, Marcus Paige was 8-of-15.
So far in the 2016 NCAA tournament, UNC has played solid defense in stretches, when necessary, to create a cushion. It has won all four tournament games by double-digit margins, nine games in a row overall, silencing critics or analysts who questioned the team’s toughness and defensive intensity.
Syracuse, on the other hand, is the Houston guest no one expected.
The Orange started 0-4 in the ACC and had to sweat it out Selection Sunday. It has as many losses as North Carolina and Oklahoma combined. Syracuse caught a break when Michigan State, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, was upset in the first round, and used late comebacks to shock Gonzaga and Virginia in the regional semifinal and final.
While UNC goes nine or 10 players deep with ease, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s rotation stops at seven. He used five players for at least 32 minutes in the six-point win over the Cavaliers.
The Orange has the requisite length and athleticism to cause problems out of its trademark 2-3 zone, although defensive rebounding can be an issue (337th in the nation).
Syracuse is 16th in defensive efficiency and just held the top-25 offenses of Gonzaga and Virginia to less than one point per possession.
Worth Watching: Will Syracuse freshman Tyler Lydon take a stab at slowing down Brice Johnson? Not many defenders have had much luck lately as the smooth and bouncy 6-10 Johnson has been a shot-making machine. Over the last five games he’s hit 65 percent and produced three consecutive double-doubles. Lydon, a 6-8 center, blocked 11 shots in 61 minutes in Philadelphia, protecting the rim late to help seal each Orange victory. Expecting the same success against a wily senior like Johnson might be unrealistic, but it’s probably Syracuse’s best shot at success. Johnson was 13-of-21 in the two regular season meetings.
Prediction: North Carolina 79, Syracuse 66