By Andrew Kahn
The Final Four in Houston is set and features three teams that spent time at No. 1 in the rankings this season and…Syracuse, a 10 seed that saved its best basketball for the Big Dance. Saturday’s games are both regular season rematches. Oklahoma beat Villanova by 23 on a neutral court and North Carolina topped Syracuse twice in ACC play.
1. Orange you surprised?
To the shock of its players, coaches, and fans, Syracuse is still playing. In two weeks, the Orange went from the Tournament bubble to the Final Four. The most impressive win during the improbable run came on Sunday in Chicago, as Syracuse went on a 25-4 run during a six-minute span late in the second half to beat top seed Virginia 68-62. Syracuse was down by as many as 16 in the second half and trailed 54-39 with under 10 minutes to play. They went to a full-court press to speed up the slowest team in the country and it worked. Virginia turned it over more than usual and failed to convert good opportunities when it did break the press. Freshman Malachi Richardson keyed the charge for Syracuse, scoring 21 of his 23 in the second half.
Syracuse’s 13 losses are tied for the most ever by a Final Four team (with 2000 Wisconsin) and they are the first 10 seed to reach the sport’s final weekend (three 11 seeds have done it).
2. Consistently great
The box score shows 42 points in the paint for North Carolina against Notre Dame, but it felt like more. The team with the most dominant frontcourt in college basketball had its way inside all night to advance to its 19th Final Four, two more than any other program. Brice Johnson, as he usually has this season, looked unstoppable and led the way with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting. The Heels rebounded more than half of their misses and made 20 of their 24 foul shots. They have won their four Tournament games by 16, 19, 15, and 14 points. The preseason No. 1 will be the only No. 1 seed in Houston and the only program that is not “Always Reppin’.”
3. Super Nova
Admit it: Part of you thought Villanova would falter again in the NCAA Tournament. Despite some favorable seeds, the last time the Wildcats advanced past even the first weekend was in 2009, when they reached the Final Four. They’re heading back, and deserve a ton of respect. Villanova dominated its first three Tournament opponents—winning by 30, 19, and 23—and, on Saturday, toppled the top overall seed, Kansas, 64-59. They held the Jayhawks to 6-of-22 from deep; Frank Mason and Wayden Selden were a combined 1-for-12 from three. Just as important, Villanova went 18 for 19 from the free throw line and made all eight attempts in the final 33 seconds. The two that iced the game came after an incredible defensive play by Ryan Arcidiacono and Mikal Bridges. If Arcidiacono didn’t poke it from Mason, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk would have likely had an open shot to tie the game.
4. Buddy Buckets
The reason it was and will continue to be hard to pick against the Sooners in any one game is the reason they are going to Houston: Buddy Hield. The senior drained eight threes en route to a 37-point outburst against Oregon in the West Regional final. Oklahoma is headed to its first Final Four since 2002. Hield started the game hot and never cooled off, and it didn’t seem to matter if he was fading away and/or well beyond the three-point line. He sized up his defender and had his way with him all night.
The Sooners nailed 14 triples against Villanova in Honolulu on December 7th; a repeat performance would certainly land them in the title game next Monday night.
5. Irish run out of luck
Notre Dame, the only school to reach the Elite Eight the past two seasons, provided plenty of excitement in its three Tournament wins this year. The 6 seed narrowly edged Michigan in its opener, beat Stephen F. Austin in the final second, and needed a couple of late steals to stun Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. Notre Dame’s offensive performance on Sunday night was the best against North Carolina all season, but the Irish defense, a weak spot all year, was nonexistent (and the worst all year against the Heels). Even so, it’s clear that coach Mike Brey, who struggled in the Tournament before last season’s run, has learned a lot about postseason basketball.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.