Final Four preview: Syracuse crashes the party

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[March 28, 2016]  The team that started 0-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, finished 10th in the league and got what many deemed an undeserved at-large bid is still playing.

Syracuse's stunning second-half comeback Sunday in a 68-62 win over top-seeded Virginia in the Midwest Region final not only made the Orange the first 10th seed to ever reach the Final Four, but it also validated the NCAA Tournament's selection committee's decision to give Syracuse a berth despite its 1-5 record in its last six games before the tourney.

Orange players felt the team was actually improving despite their slump at season's end, citing the closeness of those losses. However, 40th-year coach Jim Boeheim admitted following Sunday's game that he harbored no illusions of coaching Saturday night in Houston.

"I wasn't planning on getting to the Final Four," Boeheim said. "We tell the players it's one game. You play one game, and if you can just win one game, you get another chance. They've done that."

Extenuating factors aside, don't think about calling Syracuse a Cinderella, not for one second. While the Orange might lack depth, their starting lineup contains four players who will play for pay somewhere, including freshman forward Malachi Richardson, who lit up Virginia during a game-ending 29-8 run.

Then there is reserve forward Tyler Lydon, whom Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis termed a future NBA lottery pick after watching Lydon collect 14 points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots in a second-round win over the Blue Raiders.

Thanks to the unexpected run, Syracuse (23-13) moves on to face North Carolina (32-6) in the ACC portion of the bracket. The Tar Heels were the only top seed to maneuver through their quarter, eliminating Notre Dame on Sunday night for the East Region crown.

One of the pre-tournament favorites, North Carolina owns a pair of wins over the Orange, although its 75-70 triumph Feb. 29 in Chapel Hill seems like a better hint at what Saturday night might bring than an 84-73 decision in early January at the Carrier Dome.

No team remaining plays faster or with more skill than the Tar Heels at their peak. Forward Brice Johnson is a double-double machine, compiling a school-record 24 this season, while guard Marcus Paige shrugged off an extended midseason slump.

"It means a lot," Johnson said to TBS of earning his first Final Four trip. "It took us four years to do this, and we're finally there."

So are Oklahoma and Villanova, who will play first semifinal Saturday. It is also a rematch of a regular-season meeting, the Sooners boat-racing the Wildcats 78-55 on Dec. 7 in the Pearl Harbor Invitational.

And Oklahoma (29-7) didn't even get that great a game from probable national Player of the Year Buddy Hield, who was only 6-for-17 that day on his way to a quiet 18 points. However, Hield has been anything but quiet during the tournament, averaging 29.3 points per game in the Sooners' run through the West Region.

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That includes an otherworldly 37 points in an 80-68 drilling of top-seeded Oregon on Saturday, when Hield went 8-for-13 from the 3-point arc. Even with defenses stacked to stop him at every turn, Hield has canned 50.4 percent of his field-goal attempts, 46.5 percent of his 3-point tries and 88 percent of his free throws.

"I just put it up because my confidence level is so high, just taking shots in rhythm and taking shots I know I'm capable of making," Hield said. "My teammates did a good job of finding me all year."

While Hield gets most of the attention, Oklahoma's defense is grossly underrated. The Sooners hold opponents to 40.5 percent shooting from the field and 33.1 percent on 3-point attempts, thanks to an experienced lineup that can switch easily and not miss assignments.

Villanova (33-5) should offer a better test in the rematch. The Wildcats dumped top-seeded Kansas 64-59 for the South Region title, playing superb defense on forward Perry Ellis all night and forcing three crucial turnovers in the last minute.

Guard Josh Hart is Villanova's top scorer, but this team is more balanced than any of the other finalists. Keying on Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono could be a mistake. Ignoring the frontcourt carries the risk of a big night from Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu.

Many wondered if the Wildcats would even survive the first weekend for the first time since 2009, their last Final Four trip. Little wonder that coach Jay Wright was beaming like a happy father following his second regional title.

"When you're a parent, you think your kids are the greatest," he said. "When you see them live that out and become great, it makes your heart swell."

[ 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.]

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