The most intriguing match-up Saturday night at the Final Four? Six words.
North Carolina offense vs. Syracuse zone.
In one corner, wearing white, will be the Tar Heels, having scored 83, 85, 101 and 88 in the NCAA Tournament.
In the other corner, wearing orange, will be, well, the Orange, having allowed 51, 50, 60 and 62.
Carolina has averaged 46.75 points just in the second half in the tournament. Syracuse has given up 26.
The Tar Heels are shooting 51 percent, the Orange opponents 36.4.
North Carolina has had only eight of its shots blocked in four tournament games. Syracuse’s Tyler Lydon has blocked 18 by himself.
The Tar Heels thrive inside, averaging 40 points in the paint in the NCAA Tournament. As Roy Williams noted, “I think there’s more teams that have won national championships with an inside-first outlook than there have been with teams that shoot 35 3’s, but that’s just my opinion.’’
Meanwhile the Orange, looking to prohibit – or better yet, steal – anything going inside, are giving up 23 points in the paint.
North Carolina has outscored its four tournament opponents 49-14 in fast break points.
Syracuse has allowed 17 fast break points in four games.
The Tar Heels are committing 10.7 turnovers a game this season, their lowest since the statistic began to be officially kept in 1981-82.
Virginia went into the Midwest final against the Orange averaging only seven turnovers in the tournament, and had seven before the game was 16 minutes old.
Just look at North Carolina’s irresistible force. The Tar Heels scored on 19 of 20 possessions against Notre Dame. "I’m sitting there thinking they’ve got to miss one," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "Brice Johnson – can he just miss one? Can he just help us a little bit? I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.
"They’ve got a great vibe about them right now."
And as Indiana’s Max Bielfeldt said, “It’s a tough train to stop."
Just look at Syracuse’s immovable object. Two days after Middle Tennessee shredded mighty Michigan State for 90 points, the Blue Raiders managed 50 against the Orange. Gonzaga went from 82 the previous game to 60 against Syracuse, Virginia from 84 to 62.
"You’ve got to get in the game to really feel it. I mean, you really do,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said of the Syracuse zone. “Their concepts are great. You’ve got to beat them in a low-scoring game.”
And as Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “That thing is really, really difficult to simulate in practice.”
North Carolina has the firepower, especially All-American Johnson, averaging 21 points and shooting 63 percent in the tournament. The most prolific offensive weapon in the Final Four not named Buddy Hield.
But look at what Syracuse has been doing to other teams’ primary weapons. Reggie Upshaw scored 21 points for Middle Tennessee against Michigan State. He had two against the Orange. Dayton’s leading scorer Charles Cooke was 4-for-12. Virginia’s Anthony Gill went from 23 against Iowa State to 10 against Syracuse, and that while his star teammate Malcolm Brogdon was 2-for-14 shooting.
The Tar Heels beat the Orange twice this season, 84-73 and 75-70. In the first game, they scored on 16 of their last 19 possessions, doing a North Carolina number on the Syracuse defense.
But that was January. Now it’s a different month, different stakes – and a different level of Syracuse zone.
Also, a different place to play. The wild card in all this is what NRG Stadium’s vast open spaces have been known to do to shooters, and it ain’t pretty.
This is the place Butler’s Cinderella story came crashing down in 2011, when the Bulldogs shot 18.75 percent in the championship game. This is the place Connecticut went 2-for-23 in 3-pointers in the 2011 Final Four – and managed to win both games.
This the place Gonzaga was 5-for-29 in 3-pointers in last year’s regional, and the four teams combined for 26.7 percent from beyond the arc. In other words, not exactly a shooter’s paradise.
So does North Carolina get an edge because of its inside game, since depth perception shouldn’t bother a five-footer? Or does Syracuse, because it can pack the zone and make a team try to shoot over it?
There will likely be no tricks or tweaks. Both teams do what they do, and keep doing it. North Carolina probing and slashing and trying to move things along, Syracuse seeking to plug every gap, and bother every shooter.
Williams, asked last week if getting the ball inside was the game plan against Notre Dame: “It’s our game plan all the time. We have good players inside.”
Dayton’s Archie Miller, asked what nuances of the Syracuse defense had been responsible for the 70-51 throttling the Orange put on the Flyers in the first round: “Their zone is their zone. They didn’t do anything different today than they ever do.”
Indeed, that is the beauty of this match-up. Everyone knows what’s coming, but nobody knows what will happen.