Following Syracuse’s improbable run to the Final Four, the Orange are looking to make even more history on Saturday night. They’ll face No.1 North Carolina at NRG Stadium in Houston, looking to become the first ever No.10 seed to reach the national championship game.
Syracuse is just the fourth double-digit seed to ever reach the Final Four, and they nearly missed the tournament altogether after losing 13 games. Despite being a heavy underdog against the third-ranked team that finished five games ahead of them in the ACC, the Orange can pull off another upset if they continue to play like they have over the past four games.
Jim Boeheim's squad has played the role of Cinderella by playing terrific defense and making stops when they’ve needed them most. Syracuse allowed 101 total points in wins over No.7 Dayton and No.15 Middle Tennessee State, and they held No.11 Gonzaga and No.1 Virginia to 60 points and 62 points, respectively. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone will have to be just as good if the team hopes to beat the best team left in March Madness.
Trailing at halftime in each of their last two games, Syracuse stepped up their defense in the second half. After both teams made some long three-pointers in the first half, the Orange limited Gonzaga and Virginia to a combined five-of-19 from behind the arc. North Carolina has the advantage in the frontcourt, and Syracuse needs to limit the Tar Heels' effectiveness from three-point range in order to keep the game close.
Slowing down the Tar Heels, however, is easier said than done. North Carolina has scored at least 83 points in each tournament game, and they reached the century mark in the Sweet 16 against Indiana when they made 11 of their 20 three-point attempts. If Marcus Paige and Joel Berry are shooting well, there might not be anything Syracuse can do.
Brice Johnson is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and the future first-round draft pick is averaging 21 points and 9.8 boards per game in the tournament. Johnson posted a double-double in North Carolina’s win over Syracuse on Feb. 29, and he has a chance to put up good numbers, once again. He’s part of a Tar Heel team that ranks 12th in the country in rebounding margin, while Syracuse comes in at 213th.
The Orange were outrebounded for most of their game against Gonzaga, until improving late in the second half. Syracuse was able to defeat Virginia by winning the offensive rebounding battle 12-8. Boeheim will likely rely on junior forward Tyler Roberson, who is averaging 11.8 rebounds per game in the tournament.
With Johnson likely to have a big game, the Orange may need a strong performance from forward Tyler Lydon, who has been crucial to Syracuse during their run. DaJuan Coleman starts at center for Syracuse, but Lydon plays the majority of the minutes for the Orange in the middle of their 2-3 zone. He’s blocked at least five shots in each of the last three games, and his rejection of Josh Perkins’ shot in the final seconds of the team’s win over Gonzaga put a stamp on Syracuse’s Sweet 16 victory.
After beating Virginia in their second meeting this year, Syracuse hopes they can do the same with North Carolina. The Tar Heels beat the Orange 75-70 a month ago, and Syracuse trailed by just one possession in the final seconds. While Syracuse has proven that they can keep the game close against North Carolina, defeating Roy Williams’ disciplined team might be too tall of an order.
Syracuse was nearly eliminated in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, but they used their full-court press and timely shooting to pull out comeback victories. North Carolina is better than both Virginia and Gonzaga, and their backcourt should do a much better job of protecting the ball. More than 300 teams average more turnovers per game than the Tar Heels.
The second half of Sunday’s win over Virginia was the perfect storm for Syracuse. The Orange didn’t turn the ball over once, and freshman Malachi Richardson played his best half of the season by scoring 21 points. That isn’t likely to repeat itself if Syracuse falls behind this weekend.
The Orange nearly came from behind to beat the Tar Heels in February, and Saturday could produce a similar result. North Carolina, winners of nine consecutive games, look too disciplined to falter in the final minutes.
Prediction: North Carolina over Syracuse, 72-68