On Saturday, No. 1 seed North Carolina will face No. 10 seed Syracuse at the Final Four in Houston, Texas. This is a match-up of a favorite to win the entire NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels, and a team virtually no one expected to see in the Final Four, the Orange.
What you need to know about the North Carolina Tar Heels
The last time the Tar Heels played in the Final Four was in 2009, the year they also won the NCAA championship. North Carolina has played in the Final Four a record 19 times. For a school so used to excelling in the tournament, missing the Final Four since 2009 has been tough on the team and its Hall of Fame coach, Roy Williams. "Never in my life have I wanted something for someone else as I wanted to get these guys to Houston," said Williams after the team qualified for the Final Four with an 88–74 win over Notre Dame.
How the Tar Heels made it to the Final Four
North Carolina is the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four. After a regular season with six losses, four of them by four points or less, the Tar Heels were a strong contender coming into the tournament. The team then averaged 16-point wins in each tournament game, beating Florida Gulf Coast (83-67), Providence (85-66), Indiana (101-86), and Notre Dame (88-74). UNC proved it was worthy of its No. 1 seed.
Why the Tar Heels could win
North Carolina is expected to win. The Tar Heels have beaten Syracuse twice in the regular season (84–73 and 75–70), and they have the 10th best scoring offense (83.0 points per game) in the country.
Starting power forward Brice Johnson leads North Carolina with 17.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Over the last three games, he has scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 10 boards. Johnson set a school record on Sunday in the Tar Heels’ victory over Notre Dame when he became the first North Carolina player to have three consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound games in the tournament. Johnson was named East Region MVP.
Playing alongside Johnson, combo guard Marcus Paige has been averaging 12.3 points per game — 14.3 in the tournament. He has made 13 of 27 from three-point range (48.1%) during the tournament.
What you need to know about the Syracuse Orange
Syracuse is the first ever No. 10 seed to make it to a Final Four. The last time the Orange won a national championship was in 2003, when they beat Kansas 81–78. Syracuse has been to the Final Four six times, and five of those trips were under current coach Jim Boeheim.
How the Orange made it to the Final Four
If there is a surprise entrant in the Final Four, it is Syracuse. The Orange began the tournament with a 70–51 blowout against Dayton, then earned an even bigger win (75–50) against Middle Tennessee State. Syracuse next pulled off a win against Gonzaga, but it was a slim victory. The Orange were down nine points late in the second half against the Zags and came back to win 63–60.
The Orange then met No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight. Syracuse was again down at halftime, this time by 16 points, but the Orange rallied once more and came back to beat the Cavaliers 68–62. “I just didn't think we could get there,” Boeheim said after the win. “But we wanted to give it every effort. Sometimes when you do that, something good happens."
Why the Orange could win
If you look at the numbers, Syracuse probably shouldn’t win. The Orange barely even made it into the NCAA tournament after finishing the ACC season with a 9–9 record. But Syracuse makes a strong overall team effort, with players like senior forward Michael Gbinije, freshman guard Malachi Richardson, and senior guard Trevor Cooney all contributing.
Gbinije leads the team in scoring for the season with an average of 17.8 points per game. Richardson scored 23 points — including 21 in the second half — in Syracuse’s Elite Eight win against Virginia, making him the Midwest Region MVP. And Cooney is third on the team in scoring for the season with 12.7 points per game. If grit, never giving up, and finishing strong matters, Syracuse could win.
Photos: Matt Rourke/AP (Meeks), Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images (Richardson), Elsa/Getty Images (UNC), Jamie Squire/Getty Images (Syracuse)