By Steve Silverman
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The Syracuse Orange remain a nine-point underdog a day before they take on North Carolina in the Final Four, but Jim Boeheim’s team has been there before.
Syracuse was clearly one of the last teams invited to the Big Dance, and according to many critics, they didn’t even deserve the opportunity to compete.
Boeheim has basically laughed in his critics’ faces, and his players have not paid any attention to the noise. They have reeled off four straight wins in the tournament, and their victory over Virginia in the Elite Eight remains the stuff of legends.
A strong argument can be made that the Cavaliers had the best defensive team in the nation, and when they opened a 16-point lead in the second half against Syracuse, the game should have been over. However, the supposedly “unworthy” Orange picked up the pace on offense and their own vaunted zone defense forced Virginia into numerous errors and inefficient possessions.
North Carolina may be a slightly better team than Virginia, but the two are close. Boeheim’s primary job leading up to the game has been to convince his players that they are legitimately good enough to stay with the Tar Heels.
He will have more work to do as the game plays out, but he has to remind his players how close they came to beating the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Feb. 29. Syracuse dropped a 75-70 decision, but the Orange were within two points in the final minute and could have pulled out the win.
Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije are going to have to set the tone for Syracuse if the Orange are going to remain competitive against North Carolina. Those two have been strong throughout the tournament, and Richardson’s 23-point performance against Virginia — 21 of his points came in the second half — was heroic.
If Syracuse’s tough 2-3 zone is functioning precisely, the Orange could make things very uncomfortable for North Carolina’s offense and force the Tar Heels to take way too many long 3-pointers.
Of course, if Syracuse’s defense is not at its best, that will open things up for the North Carolina offense. Brice Johnson is clearly the Tar Heels’ best player, and he is dangerous on both ends of the court. Johnson is averaging 17.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He is probably even better on the defensive end, and his propensity to block shots – he has 57 this season – gives him the ability to turn any game in the Tar Heels’ favor.
North Carolina and Syracuse will take the court in Houston after Villanova and Oklahoma play the first national semifinal game.
Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield is a must-see player who is averaging a remarkable 25.4 points per game and shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.
He has been an even bigger factor during the tournament, averaging 29.3 points over the Sooners’ first four games. But Hield is hardly a one-man team.
He gets plenty of support from Jordan Woodard and Mount Vernon native Isaiah Cousins, and the Wildcats found out how dangerous those two were when Villanova was beaten 78-55 by Oklahoma in early December.
That loss in Hawaii may actually help the Wildcats in their preparation for their Final Four game. Most teams that get a chance to play on the final weekend of the season often hear the fans and glad-handers tell them how great they are.
There’s no danger of Villanova head coach Jay Wright allowing that to happen. “I think that will help us eliminate the distractions,” Wright said. “They know how good (the Sooners) are.”
Expect the Wildcats to be well-prepared for this game. The combination of Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono are capable of leading Villanova to a successful outcome against the Sooners.
Hart is averaging 15.3 points per game, while Jenkins is fairly close behind with a mark of 13.8 points per night. But Arcidiacono may be the key to Villanova’s chances. He is also a double-digit scorer, but he is at his best when he is being pressured.
He may be the best ball-handler in the Final Four, and he is capable of finding the open man when the game is on the line.
Look for Villanova to outlast Oklahoma, and while the Orange should stay with North Carolina well in the second half, Johnson will be the difference, and the Tar Heels will end Syracuse’s hopes of a miracle finish.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy