Sports Journalism Blog

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By Jay Smith | @_SmithJ_

North Carolina is set to face off against Syracuse on Saturday in the Final Four.  Carolina enters as the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets, while Syracuse enters in a position you don’t hear a program with the prominence of the ‘Cuse usually fall under, the overachieving 10th-seeded survivor.

The key thing to watch in the contest will be the polar opposite tempos.  North Carolina’s offense operates at the 15th fastest pace in the entire country, while Syracuse’s defense has forced teams into playing the slowest tempo in all of college basketball (351st).  Whoever can control the tempo will be at a major advantage.   

North Carolina has yet to truly be tested in the tournament.  Their smallest margin of victory was their Elite 8 contest against Notre Dame, which the Tar Heels won by 14 points. 

North Carolina’s main advantage heading into this game will be their size down low, and more specifically, 6-foot, 10-inch senior Brice Johnson.  Johnson provides the perfect weapon to get in the middle of Syracuse’s patented zone defense.  He can shoot the mid-range jumper at an effective clip, and he relentlessly attacks the glass.  Johnson and the stable of North Carolina post players pose a major problem for Syracuse with their ability to attack the offensive glass.  The Tar Heels are the third best offensive rebounding team in the nation, while Syracuse is one of the worst in the country at allowing offensive rebounds (337th).   

On the other side, Syracuse enters as the first 10-seed to ever make the Final Four.  And they have been in back-to-back dogfights with Gonzaga and Virginia.

For Syracuse to pull off yet another upset, the Orange will need their guards – Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije – to play at a high level.  With both standing at 6-feet, 7-inches, their length could pose problems for the smaller Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II, standing at 6-1 and 6-0, respectively. Gbinije and Richardson’s length could also hinder the ability of the Tar Heels to drive the basketball and feed the post.  And Syracuse will look to use its length to force Carolina to shoot over their zone. 

In the end, North Carolina should be able to keep the Orange at arms-length as the second half progresses.  Barring Richardson from morphing into Steph Curry again – Richardson scored 19 points in 9 minutes in the Elite 8 – the Tar Heels should earn the right to play for the National Championship on Monday.

Prediction: North Carolina 75, Syracuse 67

By Cameron Stewart |@ThatManCam

The national semifinal between Oklahoma and Villanova is going to come down to three-point shooting. It’s very likely that whichever team can get hot from deep or prevent the other team from getting hot will end up playing in Monday night’s national title game.

That certainly was the case in the first meeting between these two teams on December 7, when Oklahoma held Villanova to 4-32 shooting on three-point attempts on the Sooners’ way to a 78-55 blowout. Buddy Hield of Oklahoma had one of his poorest games of the season against Villanova and that Oklahoma overcame a rare off-night from Hield is a testament to Oklahoma’s talent beyond Hield. One mistake people seem to make when it comes to Oklahoma is that they treat Oklahoma as if they’re a one-man show, which just isn’t true. Hield is obviously the first (and maybe even second) option, the Sooners have three other players (Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins, and Ryan Spangler) who average double digit points per game.

One player to keep an eye on throughout the game is Spangler. Oklahoma prefers to switch off on screens rather than fighting through them. At 6-feet, 8 inches and 234 pounds, Spangler would appear to be a weak link when switching on to opposing guards, but that’s not the case. Spangler is confident in his ability to step out and defend smaller, quicker players. Whether Spangler can effectively defend Villanova’s guards or not will be extremely important when Villanova has the ball.

The Wildcats are going into the game with the mindset that they’re a much better team than the one that got blown out by Oklahoma in December. The Wildcats shot 12.5 percent from deep in that matchup, well below their 35.4 percent mark for the season. While some of that poor shooting can be attributed to Oklahoma’s perimeter defense, it was more of a fluke than anything else due to playing from behind and trying to shoot their way back into the game.

Continuing with the trend of three-pointers being this game’s deciding factor, Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono will have to have solid shooting nights for the Wildcats to advance to the title game. Jenkins has been knocking down three-pointers at a Hield-like rate in the tournament, hitting 21 of 37 attempts in four tournament games.

I believe the game will be much closer than when these teams met in December, but the end result will be the same. The Sooners’ starters will again prove too deadly to be beaten.

Prediction: Oklahoma 75, Villanova 71