Final Four Preview: Can Syracuse Continue Their Improbable Journey?
It's been almost a week since the Elite Eight, but forgive me if Syracuse's presence in the 2016 Final Four is still taking some time to get used to.
After all, the Orange were 19-13 in the regular season, had their head coach suspended for nine games, lost their first game in the ACC Tournament, and were ranked 72nd in RPI. That RPI figure placed Syracuse just behind IPFW and just ahead of Alabama.
Obviously, a team with that kind of resume makes little sense as one of the last four standing in Houston this weekend.
There are plenty of arguments against Syracuse as a "legitimate" Final Four team. But after seeing how the Orange got here, even a team as heavily-favored as North Carolina better not sleep on Jim Boeheim's Houston party crashers.
Syracuse overcame a nine-point disadvantage with six minutes left to take out a Gonzaga team that ripped through their first weekend games. Then, in the Elite Eight, the Orange pulled off a comeback that, arguably, entered the conversation with the now-infamous Texas A&M comeback against Northern Iowa. Syracuse vanquished top-seeded Virginia with a 25-4 second-half run that erased a 16-point deficit.
That's 25 out of 29 points to close against Virginia, perhaps the current-day paragon in college basketball of the well-coached, highly-disciplined team that would always maintain the fortitude to avoid such a collapse. That's just not supposed to happen -- ever.
So while many will still say that Syracuse "shouldn't be here," or "doesn't belong here," maybe we should recognize the short-term brilliance of Boeheim, freshman Malachi Richardson, and the rest of the Orange for succeeding in all that the NCAA Tournament ultimately requires -- coming up big at the biggest moments.
On Saturday, Syracuse will look to continue its "anti-Cinderella" underdog run (they are, after all, a power conference team with a Hall of Fame coach and the cloud of recent NCAA violations looming everywhere they go). Standing in their way will be another ACC foe, another top seed, and another Hall of Fame coach -- one that our numbers would say is the best team left standing in the Final Four.
North Carolina's Path
Roy Williams' North Carolina squad has rolled through their tournament opposition to this point, defeating their East Region foes by an average margin of 16 points per game. The Tar Heels are shooting over 51 percent and averaging over 15 assists per game so far in the NCAA Tournament.
The Heels are the second-best team in the country according to our nERD power rankings (trailing only Kansas, who fell short of a Final Four trip), and fifth in our Offensive Efficiency ranks, best among the four teams in Houston. UNC has been carried by the play of senior forward Brice Johnson, who has rolled off three straight double-doubles, while averaging 21 points and just under 10 rebounds a game in tournament play.
North Carolina may be well-positioned for success in the roomy confines of NRG Stadium, serving as the mega-arena setting for this year's National Semifinals and Championship. The thought that long-distance shooting does not translate to football stadiums-turned-basketball arenas won't concern UNC much at all.
According to KenPom, only six teams in all of Division I relied on three-pointers for their scoring less than North Carolina did. And while it seems like common logic that the way to beat the famous Syracuse zone is to shoot threes over the top of it, Syracuse's defensive profile would suggest otherwise. There is only one instance in the last eight years where Boeheim's signature zone approach has ranked outside the top 50 nationally in terms of limiting opponents' three-point shooting percentage.
One platitude about the Syracuse zone that does hold up statistically is the grind that it can cause for opposing offenses. Per KenPom, Syracuse plays the longest possessions on defense of any team in the country. Syracuse, as a whole, favors a slower game, ranking 200th in our overall Pace measure. UNC isn't far behind the Orange in terms of playing long defensive possessions but does play the 15th-quickest offensive possessions in the country, according to KenPom's measure, so Boeheim's ability to slow UNC down should be a critical component to Syracuse's ability to spring another upset.
Another key element will be the play of Syracuse's Elite Eight hero, Malachi Richardson. The freshman was unstoppable down the stretch against Virginia's vaunted defense, en route to a team-high 23 points. Richardson also debuted strongly in this year's tournament, with 21 points against Dayton but scored just 14 points combined in Syracuse's wins over Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga.
For an Orange squad shooting just over 41 percent in the tournament, 10 percentage points worse than the Tar Heels, they will likely need at least one breakout performance (like Richardson's last Sunday) to hang with UNC.
Syracuse is one of the best teams in the nation at generating steals but will be matched against one of the top ball control teams in the country. One glaring mismatch the Orange will have to fight to control will appear on the offensive glass.
According to KenPom's measures of Offensive Rebound Rates, Syracuse is 337th in the country at keeping opponents off the offensive boards, while the Tar Heels are the 3rd-best in the nation at grabbing second-chance points.
Our numberFire Live projection favors North Carolina -- with a 69 percent win probability for Saturday's game.