The basketball season for college student-athletes ends this weekend and perhaps one of the more wide-open seasons in recent history. There were six teams, at one time or another this season, who were ranked #1 in the AP Top 25, and Kansas were the one team to be ranked #1 twice. But after a tumultuous season, the college basketball hurricane has reached land and is beginning to wind down.
Many people around me, based in North Carolina, are interested in what the UNC Tarheels are going to be able to do this weekend, and I believe that’s why so many chose to read the ‘Greatest Tarheel Squad Ever?’ article I produced this week. But what about these other schools? I feel everyone needs to be aware of what each of these teams can do, because it’s no fluke they’re headed to Houston. The Tarheels are the only remaining #1 seed of the four entering this tournament, while the other three teams lasting beat a #1 seed to advance to Texas. I dissect what each of these teams must do in order to advance to Monday’s championship game.
(2)OKLAHOMA vs. (2)VILLANOVA 6:09 PM US Eastern Time on TBS; Saturday night
The Oklahoma Sooners and the Villanova Wildcats meet once again. Did you know they’ve played each other once already this season? Back in early December, the 7th-ranked Sooners at the time played the 9th-ranked Wildcats in the Pearl Harbor Classic, and it wasn’t pretty. After the Sooners led by six at halftime, they took over in the second half, outscoring their opposition 46-29, and winning the game with a final score 78-55. Surprisingly, the best player for both teams, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono, weren’t much of a factor on December 7th, with Hield shooting 6-of-17 in 36 minutes to get to 18, while Arcidiacono only put up 10 points in 4-of-10 shooting. These two players are more capable of much bigger impacts, and perhaps that happens this Saturday night.
Now they are both the two-seeds in this tournament nearly three months later. The key to this game for both teams is for Hield and Arcidiacono to go off, but not to be the only ones contributing. Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, who were both shut down in December by the Sooners defense, will need to make up for that complacency this time around. While Buddy Hield nearly doubles the PPG average of the second-best at Oklahoma, it would be tremendous if senior Isaiah Cousins could show up, like that December night in Hawaii where he had a game-high 19 points.
When it comes down to it, other than rock solid defense against Cousins and the red-hot Hield, the Villanova Wildcats will need to play smarter. In the Pearl Harbor Classic game against Oklahoma, their shots weren’t going down, only making 4-of-32 from deep range in that game, and making a not-so-grand total of 31.7% of their shots in that game. I think the Wildcats can avoid losing by a humiliating 23 points, and they can keep it close, but my best guess are the Oklahoma Sooners advance to the title game with a 5-6 point victory.
(1)NORTH CAROLINA vs. (10)SYRACUSE 8:49 PM US Eastern Time on TBS; Saturday night
The UNC Tarheels and the Syracuse Orange are ACC rivals, so we’ll get a third game between these exact teams before we can move past this weekend. The first time around up north on January 9th, the Tarheels took it 84-73, and followed that up on February 29th in Chapel Hill, which saw the Heels escaping with a close 75-70 victory over the Orange. Syracuse’s senior guard Trevor Cooney exploded for 27 points in their first game, but struggled to get 14 the second meeting on 3-of-11 shooting. Surprisingly, UNC’s senior guard Marcus Paige had the trouble throughout. Paige combined in the two games for 3-of-18 shooting (2-of-13 from deep), 9 points, and only attempted one free throw. Luckily, Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks were among the ones to step up in the time of Paige’s troubles to down the Orange themselves.
Syracuse has a blueprint to stop the Tarheels star Marcus Paige and hold him in single digits, but he’s still a threat to channel his inner leadership qualities and get teammates the best shots, and that’s evident from having 8 assists in each of the two meetings with the Orange. Syracuse really needs to focus in on Brice Johnson, the leading scorer and rebounder for Carolina this season, and they’ll need to try to box out on the defensive end if there’s any chance of putting Johnson’s effectiveness in a box. As for the Tarheels chances of advancing to their third championship game of the 21st Century, it’s simply doing what put them in the Final Four to begin with. The Tarheels must dominate the boards and get guys like Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Kennedy Meeks involved offensively if Paige is shut down again.
The Orange has made a tremendous run into the Final Four as a ten-seed. They’ve been the Cinderella team nobody wants to succeed, considering Syracuse has been an established basketball program and doesn’t fit the mold of your typical “underdog” team in March. On the Syracuse’s side, it is very difficult for a team to beat you three times in one year, not to mention the margin of victory for UNC diminished between games one and two. However, I’ve never been sold on Syracuse all tournament and if they meet up with an Oklahoma team in the title game, they’re likely blown out by 25. The Orange, as a matter of fact, are ten-point underdogs to the Tarheels this time around. I think Jim Boeheim will bring his team to play and if I were a betting man, I’d go Syracuse +10.0, because the Tarheels are going to escape to the title game, outscoring the Orange by 4 points.
Key Players to Watch:
OKLAHOMA Isaiah Cousins ¦ Dec 7th vs Villanova; 19 points (7/14 FG), 10 assists
VILLANOVA Daniel Ochefu ¦ Dec 7th vs Oklahoma; 8 points (4/8 FG), 10 rebounds
CAROLINA Isaiah Hicks ¦ This season vs Syracuse; 15.5 PPG (64.3% FG), 7.0 RPG
SYRACUSE Tyler Roberson ¦ This season vs Carolina; 11.0 PPG (69.2% FG), 9.0 RPG
Tell me! Who do you have advancing to the title game on Monday night?