(1) North Carolina vs. (10) Syracuse
Initial Thoughts: Two straight second-half comebacks have the Syracuse Orange unexpectedly back in the Final Four for the second time in four years, proving old Jimmy B still has it on the sideline. It helped that Virginia melted like a cheap candle against the slightest sign of pressure, but the length and athleticism of the Orange gets a lot of credit for that. I mentioned it on Twitter, but the Orange press looked outrageously good in leading a comeback against Pitt in the ACC Tourney, and I wasn’t wholly shocked to see it work again – when your PG is 6’7, you can cause problems for the opponent. It’s a shame the Orange have very little depth (and that Boeheim is married to the 2-3), because their pressure is truly impressive.
UNC, on the other hand, did not need any such comeback. ND made it a game with the help of a soft-ish Brice Johnson technical, but the overwhelming depth and talent advantages for the Heels ended up rolling over the Irish. I’m going to lean on these two teams’ prior 2 meetings for a lot of insight on matchups, and with both teams essentially playing like the best version of themselves right now, it should make for one hell of a New ACC vs Classic ACC battle in Houston.
North Carolina on Offense: “If UNC shoots the ball like they did against Indiana, then I don’t really need to write this preview. I’m going to operate under the assumption that a 31% 3-point shooting team on the season won’t hit 10 of their first 12 from deep tomorrow, though.” That’s how I started my preview of UNC/ND, and it rang mostly true – UNC jumped out to a double-digit lead behind 4 first-half threes (including 2 from Paige), but they weren’t quite as blistering from deep as they were against the Hoosiers, which let ND hang around a bit. I’m going to guess that we see a harsh regression game in the vast cavern of NRG Stadium – Paige will hit a couple, but I wouldn’t expect much from deep from Jackson/Berry/Britt.
Of course, they’ll have their chances, as teams always do against the 2-3. Part of what makes Syracuse’s zone so good is the TYPE of threes they force you to take – their perimeter length makes getting the preferred inside-out open treys difficult, instead forcing you into deep shots over that length after passing around the perimeter (sometimes up against the shot clock). Look where Joel Berry is launching from in the first meeting at the Carrier Dome (he misses):
And here’s Paige firing over the 6’7 Gbinije with 2 on the shot clock (another miss):
That helps explain why teams actually shoot such a low percentage from deep against Syracuse. Opponents are only at 36% - not terrible, but certainly not what you’d expect if it was a bunch of rhythm shots. Indeed, UNC went 3/16 (one of those was a top-of-the-key bank) and 6/25 from deep in their 2 victories over the Orange – a whopping 22% combined.
A great way to get open shots against the zone is through skip passes – look at how the zone has collapsed on the cutting Hicks while Johnson has it in the corner, leaving Paige wide open cross-court. Johnson has the height to make these passes over the zone.
Due to their lack of elite shooting and Cuse’s perimeter length, North Carolina needs to play to their strength and pound it inside – easier said than done against the zone, but doable nonetheless. Brice Johnson should be an absolute terror – his touch from the midrange in the lane and along the baseline will be basically unguardable. Here he uses a little stepback jumper from the post that he loves - you can barely see the quick dribble he sneaks in:
And when DaJuan Coleman/Tyler Lydon comes up to meet him at the FT line, he’s a good enough interior passer to hit Meeks or Hicks on the baseline for a dunk. Johnson had 8 assists (eight!) in the first meeting with the Orange; I watched all of them, and 6 of the 8 were from the high post to baseline cutters for dunks and lay-ups. That will be huge for the Heels.
I’ve somehow gone on and on about UNC on offense without mentioning two massive keys on this end – offensive rebounding and transition. UNC loves to crash the glass, and they grabbed a nice 32% of their misses in the first meeting at Syracuse, followed by an eye-popping 46% in the rematch at Chapel Hill (19 offensive boards!). Syracuse needs to hold them way closer to the first mark (or lower), even if it means sacrificing some of their own transition opportunities (see last paragraph of Cuse on offense section).
UNC wants to run, something Syracuse’s defense does a great job of limiting, but the combination of Cuse taking a lot of threes (read: long rebounds) + UNC playing 2 PGs at all times should lead to some open court opportunities. Unlike against UVA, when the Orange won by speeding up a slow team, they desperately need to slow down a constantly-fast-breaking offense, and the battle to do so will be about as big as the battle on the glass. The first two meetings were 69 and 70 possessions, respectively, much more in UNC’s comfort zone; Syracuse wants that down in the 63-65 range.
Syracuse on Offense: Like the two teams in the earlier semifinal, Syracuse relies heavily on the 3. The Orange are 40th in the country in 3-point rate (3FGA/FGA), with three guys having made at least 77 treys (that’s a ton!), plus Lydon hitting 41% on a lower volume. They should have those shots available against Carolina’s defense, which is much more about making everything in the lane incredibly difficult. Gbinije & Co. will drive when the opportunity presents itself, but the Orange don’t have anything even resembling a back to the basket scorer, so the onus will fall on UNC to chase the shooters off the three-point line and force the Orange perimeter guys into the teeth of the defense. The Heels can’t have lapses like Joel Berry here in the first meeting – the ball is sailing over his head for a rhythm Cooney 3, and he’s still looking towards half-court – not seeing man and ball:
On a three just a few possessions before, Paige cannot get screened this easily:
Syracuse took 31 and 20 threes in the two previous meetings, and I’d expect that total to be up around 25-30 in this game. Again, the idiotic football stadium shooting issue comes up, because that in itself could derail Syracuse’s efforts completely (hopefully it doesn’t ruin the fantastic OU/Villanova matchup). Assuming the dome doesn’t mess with the Cuse shooters’ depth perception, It will probably take double-digit (or more) threes for the Orange to actually pull out the win.
An area where Syracuse might actually have an advantage is on the offensive glass – Tyler Roberson is a freaking animal, and UNC isn’t actually that good as a team in the defensive rebounding department. Many of the Orange’s 9 makes in the first meeting were off kick-outs from offensive rebounds. The Tar Heel guards don’t gang rebound (instead leaving it up to Johnson and Hicks/Meeks), and that could be a major issue with all of the long rebounds that will likely come from Syracuse’s long-range shooting.
One last note on Syracuse’s shooting – an area they haven’t exploited much in the two UNC games is having a stretch 4 like Tyler Lydon. UNC is almost always going to play two bigs, and as athletic as Johnson/Hicks are, they much prefer dominating the paint to chasing Lydon out to the line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some pick-and-pop with Lydon, and look how well it worked in Chapel Hill:
Off a set like this, Lydon is either going to get a ton of open looks, or he's going to pull a rim protector out of the lane, opening space for driving lanes - a win/win for the Cuse.
Finally, Syracuse is going to need this game to be slow to have a chance at winning (they just don’t have the depth to run up and down with Carolina), so I doubt the Orange get out in transition too often. They might try to get quick baskets off turnovers or long rebounds, but again, if the game turns into too much of a track meet, the Heels just have too much firepower. Look what happened to poor Indiana, who's actually comfortable playing that style.
Key Factor(s): There’s an awful lot to choose from – this is such a stylistic clash that a lot of different factors could prove decisive. I’m going to go with the one thing I can’t truly predict – the outside shooting of each team. If UNC is hot, this could be a long night for Syracuse, because I’m just not sure how they keep up with the #1 Kenpom offense. On the other end, If Syracuse hits 12 or 13 threes, they’ll most likely have a decent chance at winning. Let’s just hope it doesn’t resemble the UConn/Butler national title game from a few years ago, also played at NRG in Houston. Man, even the thought of that game makes me shudder.
Do I Trust the Coaches?: Well, they are both Hall of Famers, so…that helps. They’ve both won national titles, they both have their teams playing their best basketball of the season, they both have main tenets of basketball strategy that they stick to – this is an awesome coaching matchup, no way around it. Personal feelings aside (I’m okay with Roy, I despise Boeheim), these are 2 of the best 15-20 to ever do their specific job in the history of the world. I’ll say I trust them.
Predictions: I just can’t see old Jimmy Boeheim getting blown out in a national semifinal. As elite as UNC has looked, Syracuse has the kind of disorienting style of play that could throw off the Tar Heels’ rhythm. They’ll have their hands full with UNC’s depth of talent, but Gbinije, Richardson, and Lydon are a match for anyone, and Roberson will keep the UNC bigs busy on the glass. If they keep the pace down, they’ll negate some of UNC’s depth. It’s hard to see them actually pulling out the win, but my money is on the Orange to keep it close. As for the over/under, flip a coin - do you think some 19-to-21-year-olds will make shots in the worst venue for shooting ever?
SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: Syracuse +9.5
O/U Pick: Under 145 (holding my nose as I bet against the UNC offensive juggernaut)