Heading into Selection Sunday sporting the moniker of 10th place in the ACC and having lost five of their final six games of the season, the Syracuse Orange appeared to be on the outside looking in regarding their NCAA Tournament hopes.
However, the notorious selection committee granted them access to the Big Dance as the tenth-seed in the Midwest Region; and as the fable goes, once you receive a ticket to the tournament, anything is possible.
Orange Come Into Final Four Enjoying Shocking Run
Syracuse did little to denounce this theory, riding a Cinderella-esque wave of momentum into the Final Four while becoming the first ten-seed ever to reach the pinnacle of college basketball's final weekend. As a result of their fine performances thus far, they earned themselves a date with the heavily-favored, first-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels of the East Region, the first all-ACC Final Four matchup since 2001.
You would have been hard-pressed to find a member of the Orange faithful who had any inclination of hope that the team would reach Houston, Texas after beginning the ACC campaign 0-4 with a plethora of devastating defeats and finishing the season with a 9-9 in-conference record, below that of non-tournament qualifiers Virginia Tech and Clemson.
However, credit Jim Boeheim's defensive innovation in the Orange's successful journey to their fifth Final Four in program history. The 2-3 zone approach that Syracuse employs takes perfect advantage of their long, lengthy personnel groupings such as frontcourt members Tyler Roberson and Tyler Lydon and backcourt mates Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije, and has worked to perfection in the team's four tournament victories.
The 6'8", 215-pound Roberson has excelled in manning the bottom of the zone throughout the season while becoming a force on the glass in his junior year, snatching 18 rebounds in the Orange's First Round decapitation of the seventh-seeded Dayton Flyers and 12 boards to lead his team to an upset of the 11th-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Sweet Sixteen.
Lydon, just a freshman, has anchored the bottom of Syracuse's defense as well in the tournament, recording a combined 17 blocks in his team's last three outings, including six each in wins over 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee and the Bulldogs to propel his team to the Elite Eight. In that round, he rejected five shots in the Orange's shocking 68-62 comeback win over the first-seeded Virginia Cavaliers on Sunday evening in Chicago.
Ranked 16th in defensive efficiency this season, Syracuse causes fits for team's incapable of shooting the long ball, which, despite a 15-for-33 tear from deep in wins over the Indiana Hoosiers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the second weekend of the tournament in Philadelphia, the Tar Heels failed to do throughout the season, their three-point percentage ranking a lowly 285th in the country.
Should Roberson and Lydon remain out of foul trouble, North Carolina will find it difficult to utilize their depth inside of the paint, making it paramount for their guards, including Marcus Paige, Joell Berry, and Nate Britt, to connect on their three-pointers from deep.
Defensive Rebounding Is a Must For Syracuse
However, even if the Tar Heels struggle from outside the arc, the Orange will find it difficult to finish defensive possessions with rebounds.
Syracuse ranked a horrendous 337th in defensive rebounding out of their vaunted 2-3 zone throughout the entirety of the season, and Roy Williams' formidable, deep group of forwards makes their living off of swiping offensive rebounds off of the glass and racking up the second chance points.
In their 88-74 Elite Eight victory over the Fighting Irish, the Tar Heels garnered 13 offensive rebounds and an astounding 23 second-chance points.
In North Carolina's second meeting with the Orange this season, a 75-70 home win on February 29 (the Tar Heels notched the first matchup of the two teams in early January, 84-73), they outrebounded Syracuse on the offensive glass by a margin of 19-12, grabbing 46% of their missed field goals.
Now, the Tar Heels shot just 6-of-25 from three-point range in that narrow victory. However, the Orange must box out the likes of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks inside if they wish to surprise the masses with an upset.
Orange Backcourt Must Step Up
If Syracuse finds a way to take down Goliath in the Tar Heels, expect the backcourt trio of Gbinije, Richardson, and senior shooting guard Trevor Cooney to assess substantial damage on their counterparts from North Carolina.
The Orange's leading scorer on the season with an average of 17.6 points per game, Gbinije provided his team with 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting in the win over Middle Tennessee before accounting for 20 points against the Bulldogs in the Sweet Sixteen, possessing the ability to penetrate to the basket or create his shot at will.
Richardson, just a freshman, was Syracuse's most prized recruit in the Class of 2015, and his potential showed in the Orange's win over the Cavaliers.
After scoring a combined 14 points in his team's prior two games entering the Elite Eight, the 13.3 points per game-scorer asserted his will on Virginia's formidable defense, torching Malcolm Brogdon & Co. for 23 points and seven rebounds, hitting a trio of three-pointers while faring 8-of-9 from the charity stripe.
Richardson did hang 21 points on the Flyers in the First Round, so it is certainly possible for the New Jersey native to roll over the Tar Heels should he receive a substantial amount of opportunity this Saturday night.
Lastly, Cooney will need to make his presence felt in NRG Stadium if the Orange wish to advance to face either the Oklahoma Sooners or the Villanova Wildcats in the National Championship Game on April 4.
The high-quantity shooter has made just 35% of his three-point attempts this season, however, he possesses the ability to gain traction on his shot in a moment's notice, featuring seemingly unlimited range.
The senior leader shot just one three-pointer in the win over Virginia, a figure which will not cut it against the Tar Heels. The Orange need to activate his potential early in the contest and find him open looks, as a 4-for-7 outing from three, as he enjoyed in the Second Round triumph over Middle Tennessee, will put Syracuse in an enviable position.