And then there were four.
The second weekend of the NCAA tournament produced far less drama than the all-out wackiness of the opening two rounds. However, we still had no. 1-seeded Virginia blow a 15-point lead in the final ten minutes to Syracuse. The upstart Orange, who stunned UVA with a 29-8 run to close the game, will now face another ACC rival (North Carolina) in the national semi-final Saturday night.
The Tar Heels have been the recipient of some fortunate breaks in the bracket. UNC could make it all the way to the finals without playing a team seeded higher than 5th. After disposing of no. 16 Florida Gulf Coast and no. 9 Providence, North Carolina routed no. 5 Indiana and no. 6 Notre Dame with relative ease. UNC has faced less talented teams which have been overwhelmed by the Heels’ explosive front line.
The other semi-final will two no. 2 seeds – Villanova and Oklahoma – square off in a battle of balance (Villanova) versus Buddy (Hield of Oklahoma).
Villanova blasted Miami FL. and squeaked by Kansas to win the South Region. The Wildcats played an inside-outside game which overwhelmed the Canes and relied on their disciplined defense against Kansas. The outside shots weren’t falling at the same rate against the Jayhawks, but Nova was able to consistently draw fouls at critical times. They shot 95-percent from the foul line for the weekend and played their best basketball of the season.
In the West, Oklahoma upended Oregon to earn a trip to Houston. Naismith Award-favorite Buddy Hield put on a shooting clinic by scoring 37 of the Sooners’ 80 points. OU’s swarming defense forced the athletic Ducks to shoot from long range and the game was over by halftime. Oregon finished 4 of 21 from three-point land.
Now that the match-ups are set, let’s break down the semi-final games and, most importantly, figure out which side will cover.
Villanova (-2.5) vs. Oklahoma
This is an intriguing match-up between two similar squads. Both play excellent team defense and are capable of taking over a game with three-point shooting. The Wildcats are slight favorites for two reasons. First, they hold a thin edge in efficiency ratings; but, more importantly, they just played at an exceptional level in back-to back games. All four teams remaining are on somewhat of a roll, but the Wildcats looked like champions in the regional.
But the tremendous showing in Louisville may have been fool’s gold.
The Sooners crushed the Wildcats, 78-55, earlier this season in Hawaii. Oklahoma controlled the glass and forced Nova to shoot bad shots from long range. What happened four months ago is generally irrelevant in college basketball and no one expects a lopsided affair this time around. (Villanova certainly won’t shoot 13-percent (4 of 32) again on its three-point attempts.) But the Sooners advantages are still present.
OU dominated on the perimeter in the first game thanks to a significantly quicker backcourt; Hield and the Sooners got open looks all game while Nova couldn’t shake free offensively. A lot of things change over the course of a season but speed is not one of them.
Pick: Oklahoma +2.5
Syracuse vs. North Carolina (-9.5)
The Tar Heels are the only no. 1 seed remaining and are getting a lot of national attention as the only “great team” in Houston. They have the best front line in college hoops, dominate in transition, and have an underrated defense. They play excellent in half court sets and thrive on turning stops into fast break points. The three-ball was their Achilles heel at points this year but, if the guards shoot as well as they did against Indiana and Notre Dame, the national championship trophy is returning to Chapel Hill.
If Marcus Paige and company aren’t on target from deep, the Heels could be in trouble. The Syracuse zone will force UNC to take shots from the perimeter. The Orange are long, athletic, and familiar with everything UNC does in its offensive sets. (They’ve already played twice this year with UNC earning two hard-fought wins: 84-73 in Syracuse and 75-70 in North Carolina.) Cuse will be focused on getting back defensively and limiting UNC to one shot.
The spread (UNC -9.5) is too high because of the familiarity, but also because the efficiency numbers lie when it comes to Syracuse. The defense has been solid all season but the Orange now have a unified confidence offensively. Jim Boeheim doesn’t have a good shooting unit but it’s making plays at critical times. There’s no reason to think Syracuse can’t hang with North Carolina for 40 minutes.
Pick: Syracuse +9.5
(Photo credit: Phil5329 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)