We’re now just two days away from the Final Four kicking off, and as such, we’ve already taken a look at some of the key storylines this week and the x-factors at play as well as breaking down what happened when the teams that square off in the national semifinals played during the regular season.
Here, we’re going to take a look at what it is going to take for each team to win two games in Houston this weekend:
Syracuse: The Orange are going to have their work cut out for them on Saturday as they face a North Carolina team that is about as bad of a matchup on paper as anyone in the country is for the Orange. Here’s the thing to know about the Syracuse zone: It’s always been really good at taking away threes. In the 15 seasons that are in KenPom.com’s database, the Orange have been outside the top 75 in defensive three-point percentage just three times; they’ve never allowed opponents to shoot better than 35.4 percent from three and have not once finished outside the top half of the country in that stat.
That’s not by accident. That’s how Jim Boeheim coaches that defense. If you watch them play, there are times where the zone almost looks more like a 2-2-1 than a 2-3 because of how high the wings play. That’s designed to make it difficult to get clean looks at the rim from beyond the arc, but by extending his defense as much as he does, Boeheim leaves open the short corner and the high post, not to mention the offensive glass. The Orange are 337th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. North Carolina? They’re third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and they have one of the nation’s best front lines at their disposal.
What does this all mean? Well, the Orange are going to have to find a way to battle in the paint on Saturday night or else their stay in Houston is going to be short-lived. And if they can get past the Tar Heels, I think they would actually have a real shot at winning a national title.
Villanova: The key for Villanova is offensively is going to be their shot selection. The difference between the Villanova that we’ve seen over the course of the last two months — the Villanova that has looked like the best team in the country during the NCAA tournament — and the one that was mollywhopped by Oklahoma back in December is how smart they are with when they decide to shoot from the perimeter. For a stretch early in the season, the Wildcats were shooting more than half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc and making them at a roughly-30 percent clip. That’s going to earn you a lot of losses.
During the tournament and down the stretch of the season, it was a totally different story. The Wildcats focused on getting the ball into Daniel Ochefu in the post. They put Ryan Arcidiacono in ball-screen actions and tried to get the ball into the paint. The threes they took were on kickouts and in transition as opposed to the shots they settled for because they couldn’t — or didn’t have the patience to try — find something better.
The result has been that Ryan Arcidiacono has been more productive and efficient and Josh Hart has gotten some easier looks at the rim. But the biggest beneficiary may have actually been Kris Jenkins, who has been feasting on the catch-and-shoot threes and the opportunities he gets to attack close-outs as power forwards struggle to remember that he is the most dangerous perimeter weapons Villanova has.
Villanova is good enough defensively — they’re tough, well-coached and mix up defenses enough to keep people off balance — that they’ll keep Oklahoma and whoever they play in the title game from running away from them. But their shot selection is going to determine whether or not they actually win this thing.
Oklahoma: Who shows up other than Buddy?
I mean, it’s really going to be that simple for the Sooners. You know what you’re going to get from Buddy Hield. He’s either going to be making shots like he did against VCU and Oregon, or the defense is going to be selling out to take away his touches like Texas A&M did. The Sooners have a pair of guards in their back court that have made game-winning plays and put on game-changing performances in big games this season. But both Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have put together some clunkers during the year.
Ryan Spangler is a stretch four that can get a double-double and Khadeem Lattin is an energy guy that blocks shots, gets to the offensive glass and finishes off lobs, but they’re not the real danger for opponents. It’s Cousins and Woodard, and when those guys get it going, Oklahoma is really, really good.
North Carolina: North Carolina has the best front line in the Final Four and, to be frank, it really isn’t all that close. Brice Johnson was an AP First Team All-American. Kennedy Meeks is an all-ACC caliber player. And Isaiah Hicks? There are NBA scouts that believe he may actually be the best of the bunch when it comes to NBA potential.
Those dudes are long, they’re athletic, they’re physical and they know how to get the space they need to be effective, whether it’s on a post touch or getting to the offensive glass. The key for the Tar Heels, the way that they’re going to win the national title, is by doing what they’ve done for the last month: pounding the ball inside. Not only will that get Carolina points at the rim and opponents in foul trouble, but once teams realize that they’re not going to be able to stop Johnson and company without some kind of help, it will create open looks from the perimeter for Joel Berry II, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson.
With the way those guys are shooting the ball right now, rhythm threes for them are the kind of back breakers that will win the Tar Heels a title. In other words, if opponents are forced to live with those guys shooting threes, and they’re making threes, that’s a bad sign for those opponents.