(10) Syracuse Orange vs (1) North Carolina Tar Heels (-9.5, 145 o/u)
I bet there’s some guy in Syracuse who stopped paying attention to the Orange’s basketball season somewhere around January 9th when the team lost its fourth straight ACC game to begin the year. Then, yester day, he came across a headline that said the Orange were in the Final Four and he chalked it up as an April Fool’s Day joke. But, as much as the team’s run must feel like a cruel jest to the likes of Mark Few and Tony Bennett, it’s real and it’s spectacular.
Now the Cinderella story of the unpredictable Syracuse Orange (23-13, 20-15 ATS) will continue against a familiar foe tomorrow when Jim Boeheim’s squad meets ACC rival North Carolina (32-6, 18-18 ATS) at NRG Stadium in Houston (approx. 8:49 PM Eastern) with a spot in the national title game on the line.
This season has been full of ups and downs for the Orange. As mentioned, they started ACC play 0-4, but then bounced back to run their record to 8-5. That run came to an abrupt halt when the Orange lost four of the next five to finish the year at .500 in conference play.
When selection Sunday came, Syracuse was in danger of not even making the tournament; a couple of weeks later, the Orange are two games away from earning the school’s second national championship.
The Orange’s improbable run has been spurred by the defensive side of the ball; predominantly employing Boeheim’s usual 2-3 zone, Syracuse has held opponents to just 55.8 points per game during the tourney.
But, against Gonzaga and Virginia (games which Syracuse trailed by double-digits at points), the Orange showed that they’re more than just a zone team. They employed a full-court press to great effect, building critical momentum and turning late-game deficits into last-minute leads.
For the Orange to reach the title game, they’ll have to do something they’ve already failed at twice this year: beat the Tar Heels. North Carolina took both regular season meetings (84-73 in Syracuse and 75-70 in Chapel Hill; each team covered on the road) en route to the ACC regular season (and tournament) title.
Unlike the Orange, the Tar Heels will look to turn tomorrow’s game into a track meet and keep the tempo high. Forward Brice Johnson has paced the high-scoring Heels in the tourney, averaging 21 PPG and shooting 63-percent from the field.
But all of the UNC starters have been on point, and the balanced attack has the team averaging nearly 90 points per game, as a whole.
They haven’t had the toughest road to the Final Four – the highest seed they’ve faced so far was the no. 5 Hoosiers – but they’ve covered three straight against solid (if not spectacular) squads: Providence (85-66 as 11.5-point favorites), Indiana (101-86 as 5.5-point favorites), and Notre Dame (88-74 as 9.5-point favorites).
Syracuse has played over its head to reach this stage, and it’s tempting to think that the team’s time is up now that the prolific Heels are on tap. But 9.5 points is too many to lay given the familiarity between the teams and the likelihood that the Orange zone will keep the game fairly low-scoring. (It’s certainly helped Syracuse of late against UNC; they’ve gone 3-1-1 ATS in the last five head-to-head.)
Take the Tar Heels to win but Syracuse to cover.
Pick: Syracuse (+9.5).
(Photo Credit: Anders94 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)