Houston — OK, so it wasn’t the greatest day in Final Four history. It might have been the worst. North Carolina beat Syracuse 83-66, and that was the closer of the semifinals. Earlier, Villanova dispatched Oklahoma 95-51, which shattered the margin-of-victory standard in a Final Four game.
So: Two games decided by 61 points. Anything special you’d really like to read about these two? No? Good.
If there was any benefit stemming from Saturday’s semis, it was this: Two teams that didn’t quite belong were eliminated. Oklahoma was a No. 2 seed, but it was so 3-point-oriented that it would have had no chance against Carolina had it beaten Villanova. The Wildcats, by way of contrast, have a chance.
As for Syracuse: It was the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four, and it got here by beating a No. 7, a No. 15, a No. 11 — and No. 1 Virginia with a late run fueled by a press that Jim Boeheim conceded has been mostly terrible. That the Orange had outstayed their welcome was revealed by this stat:
With 13:37 to play, North Carolina led by 16 points and had made 53 percent of its shots — despite not hitting a single 3-pointer. (It was 0-for-11 on treys at that moment; it would finish 4-for-17.) Boeheim’s staple 2-3 zone had been pierced so surgically that the 3-pointer was rendered superfluous. Of the Tar Heels’ first 36 2-point shots, it made 24. That’s 66.7 percent.
This was Boeheim afterward: “I’m going to be like a football coach now. I’m going to have to look at the tapes more closely to figure out how we got here because I’m not really sure. And I have looked at the tapes. I’m still not quite sure.”
Carolina’s three starting big men — Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson — scored 47 points and made 19 of 32 shots. Carolina’s reserve big men — Isaiah Hicks and Joel James — scored 10 points and made 5 of 7 shots. That’s 57 points on 61.5 percent shooting just from the inside guys. (Also 27 rebounds.) That’s domination of a sort the Syracuse zone is supposed to prevent.
With one game to go, the only question about Carolina is its path to the final: The highest seed it has faced was No. 5 Indiana. It got No. 6 Notre Dame in the East Regional final and then a No. 10 in the Final Four, and the Heels had already played those two ACC opponents twice apiece. Villanova will be new and different.
Villanova is better than anyone Carolina has seen in this tournament — or all season. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Wildcats are No. 2 in offensive efficiency and No. 6 in defense. Villanova will do as Notre Dame tried to do: Spread the floor and make Carolina’s big men switch and chase, and Nova is better underneath than the Irish were. That said …
Carolina is so irresistible it probably won’t matter. Carolina scored 50 points in the lane against Syracuse, and the Wildcats don’t play much zone defense. Gerry McNamara, the former Orange star who’s now a Boeheim assistant, scouted the first semifinal and noted that Villanova showed a zone only twice in the first 30 minutes against Oklahoma, both times on out-of-bounds plays. As tough as Nova is, can it guard Carolina man-to-man?
If the Heels weren’t a great team for most of the regular season, they’ve become something close to one now. It’s not inconceivable that they could lose — a lesser Villanova team stunned one of the most imposing assemblages ever by making 78.6 percent of its shots on April Fools Day 1985 — but it’s far easier to envision Carolina winning.