For the first time in seven years, UNC is in the Final Four. The Tar Heels are the lone #1 seed remaining and considered the favorite to survive the weekend as national champions. To do that the Tar Heels must beat Syracuse for a third time this season. Here are the keys.
Facing the Orange zone for a third time
You could easily call this a three month long chess match between Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim. In the first meeting, UNC solved the zone with Brice Johnson camping in the high post then dumping down to Isaiah Hicks for scored 21 points. Johnson had a career high eight assists and UNC survived a poor shooting night from Marcus Paige to win by 11 in the Carrier Dome. The next meeting almost two months later in Chapel Hill was a much tighter affair. The Orange adjusted the zone to make high post entries more difficult and UNC fell in love with shooting threes early. The Tar Heels squeezed enough offense out in spurts to hold of multiple second half rallies by Syracuse to record a 75-70 win on Senior Night. That win kicked off the current nine game winning streak.
Now the teams meet for a third time and it falls into Roy Williams' lap on how to adjust to what the Tar Heels saw in Chapel Hill. A couple of potential advantages for UNC is familiarity and extra preparation time. Since this is the third meeting and at least the fourth time the regulars have seen the Orange zone, it makes facing it in live action less daunting. Roy Williams noted there is no way to simulate the length and activity of the Syracuse zone in practice which makes UNC"s prior game experience very valuable.
UNC has also had more time to figure out how it should adjust to what happened in Chapel Hill. Given UNC isn't a great shooting team and NRG Stadiium is infamous for poor three point shooting, finding ways to get the ball into the post will be crucial for UNC's success in this game. That is unless Marcus Paige applies the 1993 Donald Williams patch to his shooting application.
Speaking of which...
Wither the defense?
After a solid run of defensive prowess stretching back to the end of the regular season, UNC had a rough weekend in terms of stopping opposing teams. Both Indiana and Notre Dame cracked 120 in offensive efficiency. Both teams went over 50% in eFG% and shot well from the perimeter. Notre Dame's offensive efficiency rating of 129.8 was the best for a Tar Heel opponent this season. UNC's two Indiana based opponents in Philadelphia had really good offensive games negated by the fact the Tar Heel offense was essentially unstoppable.
In light of the possibility UNC's offense could get stagnant against a tough Syracuse zone, now would be a great time for UNC's defense to stabilize. The Orange have not been a great offensive team all season. However Syracuse shoots threes from multiple positions which could be a problem for UNC defensively. The one catch there is three point shooting in NRG Stadium tends to be awful and since the Orange rely heavily on the shot(42.2 3PA%) the Orange could run into issues if the shots aren't falling.
The other aspect to this is UNC's defense doesn't necessarily need to be a full game lockdown of the opposing teams. Providing the offense is sufficient, the defense only needs to be good over a few possession stretches here and there. If that happens it should be more than enough to afford the Tar Heels adequate breathing room to advance to Monday night.
The X Factor(s)
Basically the sophomore class. Joel Berry doesn't really qualify as an X factor since he might arguable be UNC's second best player and the most important player on the floor for the Tar Heels. The other two sophomores can be the players that turn the tide of the game.
Theo Pinson's second half versus Notre Dame is a pretty big reason why the Tar Heels are in Houston. After the Irish took the lead with a 12-0 run, UNC's poised and decisive 12-0 response was fueled in large part by Pinson making things happen. He picked the ball away from Bonzie Colson to force a turnover, made aggressive moves to the basket, grabbed an offense rebound among three Notre Dame players and scored the putback plus threw an alley-oop to Isaiah Hicks to cap off the run. Most importantly, Pinson bring energy to the floor and a catalyst for good things on both ends of the floor.
Justin Jackson is the model of quiet efficiency who has turned into a solid option on the defensive end and a player that continues to hit shots on the offensive end. In the NCAA Tournament, Jackson's offensive ratings are 134, 118, 137 and 176. Those games have all be in double figures and includes an extended stretch of defense on Providences' Kris Dunn in UNC's 2nd Round win.
Much of the attention will be on Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, the seniors hoping to end their UNC careers with a national title. However the key to UNC leaving Houston could lie with the sophomores much as it did in 1993 when sophomore Donald Williams led the Tar Heels to the title.
UNC 79 Syracuse 68