UNC-Syracuse, Nova-Oklahoma: Rematches will reign at Final Four
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Did Chicago not shrug its shoulders and yawn at the four teams sent our way for the Midwest Regional? It did.
And did 10th-seeded Syracuse not make history anyway — on Chicago’s watch — and become the Cinderella story of the NCAA Tournament? It did.
Man, the tourney is so great.
We’ll have time later in the week to preview the Final Four games — North Carolina vs. Syracuse and Oklahoma vs. Villanova — but let’s start with the story lines that’ll be ubiquitous right up until Saturday’s tipoffs in Houston.
The favorite: Clearly, it’s North Carolina — the only No. 1 seed remaining — which extinguished Notre Dame’s flame in the Elite Eight.
The Tar Heels would’ve been the favorites no matter which of these teams they were facing first, but getting Syracuse first gives them an opportunity to knock around an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent for the third time this season.
Seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige will try to deliver the school’s third national championship in the Roy Williams era. The last one came seven years ago.
The superstar: Perhaps you’ve heard of Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield by now? Of course you have. The senior shooting guard, born in the Bahamas, has 117 points through four tournament games.
The tourney record belongs to former Michigan sharp-shooter Glen Rice, who scored 184 in six games in 1989. Hield has a ton of work left to do, but certainly he’s capable of take a dramatic run at Rice’s mark. The best scorer in the country all season, Hield scored 36 in the Round of 32 against VCU and 37 in the Elite Eight against Oregon.
The better semifinal: It’s Oklahoma-Villanova in a clash of No. 2 seeds that also happens to be a rematch; the Sooners dominated the Wildcats by 23 at Pearl Harbor in December.
But if you’ve watched Villanova since then, you know this is no underdog. Longtime coach Jay Wright has a balanced, veteran squad with a four-year starter at point guard in Ryan Arcidiacono, a legit back-to-the-basket big man in fellow senior Daniel Ochefu, and a pair of explosive junior scorers in Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.
Of course, Villanova also has former Stevenson star Jalen Brunson, the fifth member of the team’s starting lineup.
The long shot: Let’s be honest — “long shot” works a lot better than “Cinderella” to describe Syracuse, for at least a couple of reasons.
One, the Orange have plenty of talent; veteran point guard Michael Gbinije and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon all have strong NBA potential.
Two, who really likes crusty old coach Jim Boeheim and his program’s rule-breaking ways enough to use such a fond term to describe them?
There’s an old saw about how difficult it is for one good team to beat another good teams three straight times in one season. If Syracuse was able to come back from 16 points down to beat another top-seeded ACC team, Virginia, in the Elite Eight, than it absolutely has a shot against the Tar Heels or anyone else.
And one more: One of the nicest Final Four stories in memory is that of Villanova’s Jenkins and North Carolina’s Nate Britt. About a decade ado, Jenkins’ birth parents asked Britt’s father, an AAU coach, to take in their son on a temporary basis. Soon, the Britts became Jenkins’ legal guardians.
Jenkins and Britt each gained a brother, and now — incredibly — each has flourished into a key player on a Final Four team.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.