With just two games remaining between themselves and a sixth national title, the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels meet the Cinderella, 10th seeded Syracuse Orange, in the second of today’s two monster Final Four match-ups (8.49pm ET, Saturday on TBS).
When the 2015-16 regular season ended, there weren’t many who even had Syracuse making the NCAA Men’s Division I Championship tournament let alone reaching the Final Four just one game away from the chance to play for a nation title.
Syracuse’s Road to the Final Four
The Orange entered postseason play with a paltry 19-13 record, just barely sneaking past teams like Monmouth and St. Mary’s to earn one of those last four-in spots. They were 9-9 in conference play, just the 9th best team in the ACC. Many believed they didn’t even deserve to make it to the tournament but at the end of the day, it was their seven top-75 wins that helped out the Orange.
Syracuse opened up their tournament with a pretty decisive win over the higher seeded Dayton, defeating their opponents by 19 points. Perhaps receiving a lay-up in the second round thanks to Michigan State being upset, the Orange were matched up against Middle Tennessee State and again, made quick work of the team, winning by 25 points.
In the third round, the 10th seeded Syracuse were actually favored to win yet again, somewhat surprising given their seeding. They faced an 11th seeded Gonzaga team and defeated them in a close contest, 63-60, that only barely went Syracuse’s way thanks to heroics in the closing minutes of the game.
Syracuse lucked out that most of the region had crumbled as it wasn’t until the Elite 8 that Jim Boeheim’s squad faced its first real challenge against Virginia. Sharing the same conference, the ACC teams had met once during the regular season, a contest that went in favor of the Cavaliers 73-65. However in March, where upsets seem to be the name of the game, the result differed. Playing some of their best basketball of the year, Syracuse defeated their rivals and their region’s top seed to reach the Final Four for the second time in the last four seasons.
North Carolina’s Road to the Final Four
North Carolina entered the year as the preseason #1, a mark they only held however for the first two weeks as an early and uncharacteristic loss against Northern Iowa bumped them to the ninth spot on the AP poll. By week 11, the Tar Heels would finally climb back into the top two, just to drop again only three weeks later. North Carolina would finish in third, despite winning the conference that was considered by most to be the toughest in college basketball this year, the ACC. However, this was good enough to claim one of the top seeds.
Like Syracuse, the region seemed to fall into place for North Carolina who simply did what a one-seed should and ran through the field. Opening against Florida Gulf Coast, the Tar Heels won by 16 and followed this up with an even better 19 point victory over Providence. In the Sweet 16, North Carolina benefited from matching up with Indiana instead of Kentucky and continued to dominate. The Tar Heels, thanks to Marcus Paige (pictured), outscored Indiana by 15. Against Notre Dame, a fellow ACC foe who last lost by nearly 30 points to the Tar Heels in the conference tournament, UNC came out victorious yet again, winning by 14.
North Carolina’s games haven’t been particularly close nor have they been particularly competitive from a pure game standpoint. That’s because the Tar Heels have been playing as well as they have all season, doing so en route to their first Final Four since 2009.
Key Players: UNC’s Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson
Marcus Paige was close to being the ACC Player of the Year, an award he was beaten out by thanks to UVA’s Malcolm Brogdon. He has shown every bit of that talent in the tournament thus far and has helped UNC get to this stage.
Against Indiana, he had his best game, posting 21 points with six assists. When not scoring himself, Paige has become the one the offense truly runs through. He is consistent both with his handle and with his touch and that has helped make him one of the best guards in college basketball.
Roy Williams, UNC’s head coach, even credits Paige with helping in the emergence of one of North Carolina’s other top players, freshman Brice Johnson.
Johnson is coming off his best game of the season, totaling 25 points and 12 rebounds against Notre Dame. Prior to this, against Indiana, he went for 20 and 10 and against Providence the game before that, 21 and 10.
In fact, since the Providence game, all five of North Carolina’s starters have finished in double digits, with four of the five going for at least 10 in all four tournament games so far. This kind of depth has been provided due to Paige’s unselfishness and ability to get his teammates involved. It’s something that other teams should very much fear when it comes to playing North Carolina.
Our Preview’s North Carolina Tar Heels vs Syracuse Orange Betting Pick
Syracuse’s story has been one to follow and while not a true Cinderella in terms of them coming from the ACC and not a mid-major conference, their journey has felt all but the same. For many, they never belonged playing into March, let alone April in the first place. Many believed they took the spot of more deserving mid-major teams. Many predicted they would lose in the first or second round.
But no, the Orange have proved doubters wrong all tournament long and in the regular season, they even played North Carolina incredibly well, losing by just five the only time these two teams met. Syracuse has gotten better since then with the emergence of Tyler Lydon and his defensive prowess, however so too has North Carolina.
That is where things come to an end if you are a Syracuse fan because as good as the team has looked North Carolina has looked even better. So like all Cinderellas, the clock will strike midnight, come this Saturday.
North Carolina is favored by as high as a whopping 9.5 points and while that seems big, the Tar Heels have won every game by at least 14 points. That said, this is within conference and while I do think North Carolina gets the win, Syracuse will certainly make them work for it.