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Final Four 2016: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 28, 2016

Final Four 2016: Full Breakdown, Predictions and Stars to Watch

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    North Carolina and Syracuse will meet for a third time.
    North Carolina and Syracuse will meet for a third time.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Only three games remain in the 2015-16 men's college basketball season, so we're 120 minutes (barring overtimes) away from finding out whether North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse or Villanova will win the national championship.

    To say the least, it's not the Final Four we were expecting, but we cannot complain about what we've been given. 

    How did these teams get here? Who are their best players? What is each team's blueprint to a title?

    What follows are the stars, stats and storylines to watch when action resumes in Houston Saturday night.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com or KenPom.com.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Record: 29-7, No. 2 seed in West Region

    Path to Houston: 82-68 over No. 15 Cal St. Bakersfield, 85-81 over No. 10 VCU, 77-63 over No. 3 Texas A&M, 80-68 over No. 1 Oregon

    Biggest strength: Ranked No. 2 in the country in three-point percentage at 42.8 percent

    Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 303 in offensive steal percentage at 9.9 percent

     

    How they got here

    The Sooners couldn't miss early in the season, shooting a combined 48.5 percent from three-point range through their first 20 games while averaging 11.7 made triples per contest. And after a bit of a shooting slump in February, during which they lost four out of seven games, they're back up to their old tricks, making 10 per game over their last five and shooting 42.6 percent in the process.

    Though Buddy Hield (19-of-40 from three during the tournament) is regarded by some as Oklahoma's entire team, it's actually the resurgence of Jordan Woodard that has brought Oklahoma's offense back to life. Woodard shot 49-of-90 (54.4 percent through his first 19 games) before vanishing for about six weeks, but he is shooting 63.6 percent (14-of-22) over his last five outings.

    With that two-headed attack back in full force, Oklahoma is almost unbeatable. In fact, the only time this season that the Sooners lost while each of those guards shot at least 38.0 percent from three was in the incredible triple-overtime game at Kansas. In shooting a combined 17-of-29 (58.6 percent) from deep against Texas A&M and Oregon, Hield and Woodard were able to defeat a pair of legitimate national championship candidates by double-digit margins.

     

    Biggest regular-season "What if?"

    What if Lon Kruger had given up on Khadeem Lattin?

    From the moment the 2014-15 season ended, the biggest unknown for the Sooners was what they would do at power forward without TaShawn Thomas. They had a trio of options in Lattin, Dante Buford and Akolda Manyang, but it was anyone's guess who would get the job.

    Lattin got the first crack, and it didn't go well. In the season opener, he committed three fouls in just seven minutes while Memphis' Dedric Lawson exploded for 22 points and 15 rebounds. The season was but 40 minutes old and it already felt like Oklahoma's frontcourt was doomed. Through the first month of the season, Lattin was averaging just 15.6 minutes, 4.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game.

    Meanwhile, junior college transfer Manyang was putting up 5.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in just 11.2 minutes of action. It seemed like it would only be a matter of time before Manyang became the starter, but then Lattin put together three straight quality games and emerged as one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the Big 12. He's even scoring in the tournament, averaging 7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks through four games.

Villanova Wildcats

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    Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 33-5, No. 2 seed in South Region

    Path to Houston: 86-56 over No. 15 UNC-Asheville, 87-68 over No. 7 Iowa, 92-69 over No. 3 Miami, 64-59 over No. 1 Kansas

    Biggest strength: Ranked No. 3 in the country in two-point percentage at 56.8 percent

    Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 218 in offensive rebound percentage at 28.4 percent

     

    How they got here

    A legitimate candidate for best team in the country over the past three years, Villanova won its third consecutive outright Big East regular-season title, going 16-2 in conference for the third straight year. Early exits in the past few tournaments kept the hype from matching the product, but the Wildcats spent several weeks at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and were projected for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for two full months.

    As is usually the case when Villanova has been at its best under Jay Wright, the Wildcats have done it with defense and a balanced attack.

    Josh Hart leads them in scoring, but he's no Buddy Hield or Brice Johnson in terms of the team's dependence on him. They have eight players averaging at least 17.5 minutes per game and six of them average at least 11.0 field-goal attempts per 40 minutesnot one higher than 14.4, though. Everyone shoots well from the free-throw line and everyone contributes on a defense that is averaging 9.0 steals per tournament game.

    As a result, it takes an awful lot to shut down this offense and even more to score against this defense. It's no accident that Villanova is fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, seventh on defense and has ranked in the top 25 in both categories for three straight yearsas was the case when the Wildcats made the Final Four in 2009.

     

    Biggest regular-season "What if?"

    What if Villanova had listened to the arm-chair coaches and abandoned the three-point arc?

    After the Dec. 7 loss to Oklahomaa game in which the Wildcats infamously shot 4-of-32 from three-point rangeeveryone was up in arms about Villanova's offensive strategy. Through one month, it was shooting 28.6 percent from three and 59.3 percent inside the arc...but was attempting 50.4 percent of its shots from downtown.

    Gary Parrish of CBS Sports wrote, "It's like a pitcher who can't throw a changeup throwing changeups over and over again. Or a golfer who can't hit a driver using his driver on every hole. Or a boxer who can't take a punch trading blows in the middle of the ring with a power-puncher."

    In the 30 games since that disastrous start, though, the Wildcats have taken 40.9 percent of their shots from three-point range while converting on 37.9 percent of those attempts. Better yet, they're shooting 46.3 percent in the tournament and wouldn't have looked anywhere near as comfortable in wins over Iowa and Miami without that perimeter prowess.

Syracuse Orange

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 23-13, No. 10 seed in Midwest Region

    Path to Houston: 70-51 over No. 7 Dayton, 75-50 over No. 15 Middle Tennessee, 63-60 over No. 11 Gonzaga, 68-62 over No. 1 Virginia

    Biggest strength: Ranked No. 4 in the country in steal percentage at 12.4 percent

    Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 337 in defensive rebound percentage at 34.9 percent

     

    How they got here

    Two summers ago, I ranked the most surprising Final Four teams in NCAA tournament history, settling on a trio of No. 11 seeds (LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011) at the top of the list. I would still have to go with VCU at No. 1, considering the Rams had to win five games to get there after emerging from the inaugural First Four in Dayton. However, given all the circumstances surrounding this Syracuse team, this was arguably more improbable than George Mason's incredible run.

    In case you're still playing catch up on the past 14 months, Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban last February and had to play nine games this season without head coach Jim Boeheimboth penalties resulting from past academic violations.

    Without Boeheim at the helm, the Orange went 4-5, including an unthinkably bad loss to St. John's. They entered Selection Sunday with five losses in their final six games and a RPI rank of 71. Only 38 percent of prognosticators on the Bracket Matrix felt that Syracuse deserved a bid, and that number might have dropped to zero if Louisville and SMU weren't both ineligible for this year's tournament. With all due respect to Syracuse, they entered the tournament as one of the worst at-large teams ever.

    But none of that matters now, because the Orange are playing the most motivated defense in the country, holding their opponents to an average of 55.8 points per game and applying full-court pressure at the exact right moments to string together big runs.

     

    Biggest regular-season "What if?"

    What if they hadn't self-imposed that postseason ban last year?

    OK, technically that's a question for the 2014-15 regular season, but do you remember how up-in-arms we all were about Syracuse denying senior Rakeem Christmas the chance to play in last year's tournament? The Orange were never likely to go dancingthey were 15-7 with only one decent nonconference win and the meat of their ACC schedule still to come when they announced the banbut it seemed like a smack in Christmas' face to try to spin the story later on down the line.

    "One month knowing you're not going to the tournament is one thing," Boeheim recently told Marc Tracy of the New York Times. "To sit in Syracuse and for 10 months know we're not going to the tournament next year, that would not have been good."

    It's a perfectly valid point. It allowed Syracuse to keep incoming recruits that otherwise may have bolted, and it seems Christmas harbors no ill will for his alma mater, as he was in attendance for the Elite Eight showdown with Virginia.

    The gamble paid off, and perhaps Louisville will have similar fortunes next season after voluntarily shutting down a team that absolutely would have made the tournament this year.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Record: 32-6, No. 1 seed in East Region

    Path to Houston: 83-67 over No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast, 85-66 over No. 9 Providence, 101-86 over No. 5 Indiana, 88-74 over No. 6 Notre Dame

    Biggest strength: Ranked No. 3 in the country in offensive rebound percentage at 40.3 percent

    Achilles' heel: Ranked No. 252 in three-point defense at 36.0 percent

     

    How they got here

    Though they suffered six losses during the regular season, the Tar Heels were never soundly beaten. A six-point loss at Louisville was the closest they came to getting blown out, and that was a two-point game with 26 seconds remaining. They didn't flirt with perfection, but the Tar Heels were the closest thing that we had to a perfect team this season, so it's hardly surprising to see them dominating inferior competition in the tournament.

    At times, it looked like they were doomed to eventually have one of those games in which they simply sleepwalk themselves into a loss. At halftime in the opener against FGCU, they only led by one. They trailed early in the second half against Providence and watched Notre Dame take the lead midway through the second half after the Fighting Irish went on a 12-0 run.

    In the end, though, North Carolina was just too good, too deep and too strong, winning each of its four games by a margin of at least 14 points. As we'll mention on the next slide, that could be a good omen.

     

    Biggest regular-season "What if?"

    What if Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks had stayed healthy?

    North Carolina entered the month of February with a 19-2 record, but the first loss came without Paige in the lineup and the second came on a night where Meeks suffered a bone bruise in his knee and played poorly.

    If the Tar Heels had been fully healthy for those games, they likely would have entered the meat of their ACC schedule as the subject of incessant undefeated talk. Instead, they had the luxury of flying below the radaras much as a blue-blood program can—for the majority of the season before finally re-emerging as a popular pick to win it all in early March.

    That had to have been a nice break from what was becoming their norm, right? Two years ago, they had to deal with the uncertain status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, eventually losing the former for the entire season and not getting the latter on the court until mid-December. Last year, the Wainstein Report hung like a dark cloud over their entire season. This year, though, they could just focus on playing basketball with some of the most talented dudes in the country.

Biggest Storylines

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    Jordan Woodard defending Jalen Brunson in Hawaii on Dec. 7
    Jordan Woodard defending Jalen Brunson in Hawaii on Dec. 7Associated Press

    The NRG Stadium Effect

    The 2015-16 season was the most three-point reliant year in KenPom.com history with 35.4 percent of field-goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. Over the previous 14 years, the average three-point rate was 33.1 with 34.5 percent (2008) the highest of the bunch.

    Oklahoma and Villanova both attempted more than 40 percent of their shots from three-point range this season, but how will that play out in the dome where the long ball goes to die? In the 2015 South Regional at NRG Stadium, Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA and Utah shot a combined 26.7 percent from downtown. The 2011 Final Four was also played at NRG Stadium, and Butler, Connecticut, Kentucky and VCU shot just 28.1 percent in those three games.

    If Houston is once again Brick City, will Oklahoma vs. Villanova be a race to 65 points? Will either one have any shot against its ACC foe in the championship gameespecially if it's a North Carolina team that relies so heavily on two-point field goals?

     

    Villanova's Road to Redemption

    Since beating No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on March 28, 2009, Villanova hasn't been able to regain tournament glory . The Wildcats had acquired such a reputation for disappointing exits that it felt like a mirage to see them finally reach the Sweet 16, let alone the Final Four.

    However, there are still a few more stops on the road to redemption. In addition to exorcising the demons from tournaments past, wouldn't it be something if Villanova won it all by avenging two of their ugliest losses from the past few seasons?

    The Wildcats shot horribly in a 78-55 loss to Oklahoma in early December 2015. And in a battle between 11-0 teams in December 2013, Villanova jumped out to a 25-7 lead against Syracuse before somehow losing 78-62. It feels like something directly out of a cheesy sports movie that those could be the two teams they need to beat to win the title.

     

    Can Buddy Hield Break the NCAA Tournament Scoring Record?

    According to the NCAA tournament history index at CBS Sports, Michigan's Glen Rice currently holds the record with 184 points in the 1989 NCAA tournament. But Hield is already at 117 through four games, putting him 68 points away from making history. Averaging 34 points per game is an awful lot to ask in college basketball, but Hield has scored at least 36 in three of his last six. If he gets to face North Carolina's three-point defense in the title game, it's not such a far-fetched possibility.

     

    Don't Call it a Cinderella Story

    The Twitter world has spent more than a year arguing over whether a hot dog is a sandwich and whether deep dish pizza is actually pizza, so don't expect anything close to unanimous agreement on the answer to this conundrum.

    We've had internal debates over the past few years as to whether major conference teams like Oregon State or Seton Hall would count as Cinderella stories, because it had been so long since they last danced. But we never would have dreamed about including Syracuse in any sort of ranking of Cinderella teams.

    Until now.

    The Orange are on one of the most improbable runs in NCAA tournament history, but what exactly do we call it when a coach who entered this season with 53 career tournament wins experiences unexpected, prolonged success? The reason Gonzaga was a Cinderella story back in 1999 is because the common fan had never heard of Gonzaga. Same goes for Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.

    Syracuse, though? Everyone knows the Orange. We just weren't expecting much. We'll just call them the Zombie Orange, but we're open to suggestions on a better moniker.

     

    Repeat of 2009

    With all four No. 1 seeds reaching the Elite Eight, we thought this might be a repeat of 2008the only time that all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four.

    However, it seems we were off by a year and should have been focusing on the teams instead of their seeds, because we are now guaranteed a national championship game that will be a repeat of a game played in 2009.

    The four possible title game combinations and when they met in 2009 are:

    Oklahoma vs. Syracuse (Sweet 16; OU won 84-71)
    Oklahoma vs. North Carolina (Elite Eight; UNC won 72-60)
    Villanova vs. North Carolina (Final Four; UNC won 83-69)
    Villanova vs. Syracuse (Big East rivals; 'Nova swept season series)

    One other way it might be a repeat of 2009 is that North Carolina won it all that year and won each of its six games by a margin of at least 12 points. The Tar Heels haven't had a game decided by fewer than 14 points in this year's tourney.

Stars to Watch

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    Marcus Paige (5) and Brice Johnson (11) are the seniors keying UNC's quest for a title.
    Marcus Paige (5) and Brice Johnson (11) are the seniors keying UNC's quest for a title.Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Brice Johnson, North Carolina
    Tournament Stats: 21.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 3.5 BPG

    Three of the four starting power forwards remaining in this tournament are one-trick ponies. Syracuse's Tyler Roberson is an excellent rebounder, but he's not much of a scorer. Oklahoma's Khadeem Lattin is a solid shot-blocker, but he rarely scores and is an average defensive rebounder. Villanova's Kris Jenkins is a great scorer, but he doesn't rebound or defend at a high level.

    Johnson, though, is the best of all three worlds, nearly averaging a double-double in the tournament while also emerging as a better-than-adequate shot-blocker. He was named the KenPom MVP of all four games and will certainly be the 2016 MOP if the Tar Heels have two more wins in them.

     

    Marcus Paige, North Carolina
    Tournament Stats: 14.0 PPG, 3.8 APG, 48.1 3P%

    It took a while for Paige to finally show up with any level of consistency, but you better believe Tar Heels fans are perfectly content with watching him rediscover his three-point stroke in the NCAA tournament.

    After shooting it well in early December (after missing the first six games of the season with a broken non-shooting hand), the senior combo guard shot a dreadful 27.9 percent from beyond the arc in ACC play. But those struggles somehow disappeared in time for him to have one of the best games of his career in the Sweet 16 against Indiana. He finished that night with 21 points, six assists and no turnovers after making his first five three-point attempts.

    With Paige scoring this reliably, it's hard to see any team defending well enough to slow down this Tar Heels offense, which is averaging 89.3 points per tournament game.

     

    Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
    Tournament Stats: 29.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 47.5 3P%

    If you're not aware of the type of impact Hield can have on a game, let us welcome you out from under the rock where you've been living for the past four months.

    Hield has been outstanding all season long, but he has discovered an even higher gear for the final NCAA tournament of his career. The man is two more monster games away from setting the all-time record for points scored in one tournament.

    Even if he doesn't catch Glen Rice, though, he's only 24 points away from matching Kemba Walker's total from Connecticut's 2011 championship run. There's a good chance he'll score at least that many points on Saturday against Villanova, meaning he will have done in five games what one of the greatest one-man shows in recent tournament history needed six games to accomplish.

     

    Kris Jenkins, Villanova
    Tournament Stats: 15.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.3 SPG

    His scoring has tapered off a bit from the hot streak he was on over the final month of the season, but Jenkins is still one of the first and best options in Villanova's offense. Even after shooting 1-of-7 from three against Kansas, he's still connecting on 45.8 percent of his long-range attempts through four tournament games.

    The most noteworthy number in his tournament line might be the assists. Jenkins is no stranger to attempting a ton of three-pointers in a game, having chucked up at least nine on 10 separate occasions this season. But he's only averaging six attempts per game in the tournament, recognizing that teams are more focused on shutting him down and making the extra pass when necessary.

     

    Josh Hart, Villanova
    Tournament Stats: 13.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.5 SPG

    As was the case for Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon in his junior year, Hart is the type of guy who can score 25 points in a game, but he usually spreads out his damage on both ends of the floor to drive opposing coaches crazy. He's an efficient, two-way player who just has a nose for the ball and the moment.

    Ryan Arcidiacono is the Wildcat more likely to go flying into the stands to save a possession, but Hart doesn't mind acquiring some bumps and scrapes to track down a loose ball. Hart is also the guy most likely to hit a back-breaking shot, draw a crucial foul or force a big turnover.

     

    Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
    Tournament Stats: 16.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 2.0 SPG

    For a guy who isn't shooting all that well, Gbinije is making one heck of an overall impact on the game.

    The leader of Syracuse's short rotation, he has played at least 35 minutes in 24 consecutive games. If his legs have looked a little weary on three-point attempts in the tournament, there's a good reason for that. But Gbinije is still putting up points and contributing in a plethora of ways. And if Syracuse is going to keep winning in this tournament, he'll be the main reason why.

Underrated Players to Watch

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    Syracuse's Tyler Lydon has evolved into a shot-blocking wizard.
    Syracuse's Tyler Lydon has evolved into a shot-blocking wizard.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Tyler Lydon, Syracuse
    Tournament Stats: 10.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.5 BPG

    Over the final two months of the regular season, Lydon had just 13 blocks in 15 games. But apparently Rico was the source of Lydon's shot-blocking powers, because he has been a swatting machine since committing to keeping the razor away from his upper lip.

    The freshman stretch-4 has blocked 17 shots in his last three games, including the game-sealing block in the final seconds against Gonzaga. He would likely be named the Defensive MVP of the 2016 NCAA tournament, if such an official honor were awarded.

     

    Malachi Richardson, Syracuse
    Tournament Stats: 14.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG

    Perhaps the most frequently asked question during Syracuse's run has been: How in the world did this team lose to St. John's? Well, Richardson shooting 0-of-11 from three-point range in that game is a good place to start in answering that question.

    The freshman wing has been one of the biggest X-factors in the country, inefficiently averaging 1.20 points per field-goal attempt over the course of the season and averaging 3.3 turnovers per game over his last eight. But when he's making shots, just sit back and enjoy the show. Richardson didn't make a single bucket in the first 28 minutes against Virginia, yet he finished the night with a game-high 23 points.

     

    Christian James, Oklahoma
    Tournament Stats: 4.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.0 APG

    Never mind his numbers for the full tournament, because James did little to nothing in the first two rounds. Against Texas A&M and Oregon, though, the 6'4' freshman guard averaged 8.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals. The guy has as many offensive rebounds in the last two games as he did in Oklahoma's first 34 games.

    We could be witnessing the type of freshman tournament breakout party that Duke's Grayson Allen had last season. And with Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler all graduating this summer, James is almost certainly headed for a substantially bigger role as a sophomore. Might he have a little Final Four magic up his sleeve first? 

     

    Dante Buford, Oklahoma
    Tournament Stats: 3.8 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 1.0 APG

    Buford has been a non-factor thus far in the tournament, doing most of his damage in the first round against Cal St. Bakersfield. However, the redshirt freshman stretch-4 will be a crucial component for the Sooners if Khadeem Lattin gets into foul trouble.

     

    Mikal Bridges, Villanova
    Tournament Stats: 7.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.0 SPG

    I promise this space isn't exclusively booked for freshman reserves, but the future looks bright for Oklahoma, Syracuse and Villanova with (presumably) three more years of each of these guys.

    Bridges doesn't do much shootingjust 8.3 field-goal attempts per 40 minutesbut he shoots 70.6 percent from inside the arc when he does. His main impact, though, is on the defensive end, where he was one of just 15 players in the country this season to play at least 500 minutes with a steal percentage and block percentage of at least 3.0. He hasn't blocked many shots since January, but he did have five steals in Villanova's Elite Eight win over Kansas.

     

    Isaiah Hicks, North Carolina
    Tournament Stats: 8.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG

    People forget this because he was buried on the depth chart behind Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and James Michael McAdoo for his first two seasons with the Tar Heels, but Hicks was a McDonald's All-American three years ago. And when Meeks missed seven games with a knee injury, Hicks played like a stud, averaging nearly 12 points per game.

    However, he has faded back into the shadows because of near-constant foul trouble. He only played seven minutes in the Sweet 16 game against Indiana before picking up five fouls. It was his 17th game this season with at least four fouls, which is pretty rough for a guy who only averages 18.1 minutes per game.

    We know he has the potential for a huge game, though, especially against Syracuse. He had 21 points and eight rebounds in the first game against the Orange and had 10 points with five offensive rebounds in their second tilt.

Oklahoma's Blueprint to a Title

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    If all goes well for Oklahoma, the following three things will happen, and the Sooners will win it all.

     

    1. Three-pointers will continue falling.

    It's No. 1 on Oklahoma's checklist, but hitting threes is less than half the battle. Michigan State led the nation in three-point percentage and lost to Middle Tennessee while shooting 11-of-24 from downtown. Oklahoma even lost three games this season in which it made at least 11 threes and shot at least 48.5 percent.

    However, Oklahoma's chances of winning plummet when the long ball isn't there. Nine times this season, Oklahoma shot worse than 36 percent from three. It went 5-4 in those games with an average scoring margin of 1.1 points. That includes the four-point win over VCU in the round of 32the only game in the tournament that Oklahoma won by a margin of fewer than 12 points.

     

    2. The offense will stop turning the ball over so much.

    Three-point percentage only goes so far when frequently ending possessions without even attempting a shot. Oklahoma committed 30 turnovers against Texas A&M and Oregon this weekend (15 in each game), failing to completely blow out those opponents despite shooting 23-of-49 (46.9 percent) from three while the Aggies and Ducks shot a collective 10-of-49 (20.4 percent).

    With the excellent defenses of Villanova and potentially Syracuse on tap, taking care of the ball needs to be the top priority. Buddy Hield made 10 three-pointers this weekend, but he also committed 11 turnovers. That can't happen in Houston.

     

    3. Khadeem Lattin will stay out of foul trouble.

    According to Sports-Reference, Lattin is tied with Villanova's Daniel Ochefu for third in the nation in defensive box plus/minus. But that defensive intensity comes at a price, as Lattin has committed at least three fouls in 24 games this season. In the tournament, he has averaged 6.75 fouls per 40 minutes, which means it's a minor miracle if he makes it to halftime without at least two whistles.

    But the Sooners desperately need him the rest of the way. It's one thing to get by without a defensive stopper in the paint in the Big 12, where hardly anyone has a dominant post presence; it's another thing entirely if he's riding the pine while Ochefu, Tyler Roberson or North Carolina's entire frontcourt is free to take over the game from the inside.

Villanova's Blueprint to a Title

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    Daniel Ochefu's defense has been incredible in the tournament.
    Daniel Ochefu's defense has been incredible in the tournament.Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

    If all goes well for Villanova, the following three things will happen, and the Wildcats will win it all.

     

    1. The defense will remain fierce.

    Early on in the season, defense was Villanova's bread and butter. According to KenPom.com, the Wildcats held their first six opponents to 321 points on 409 possessionsotherwise interpreted as 78.5 points per 100 possessions. In their final seven games before the tournament began, though, that ratio was 103.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. Granted, the competition was better, but they clearly lost some of that defensive mojo throughout the course of the season.

    But by holding Kansas to just 59 points in a 65-possession game Saturday night, Villanova showed it's much more than a team that lives and dies by the three. The Wildcats are averaging 9.0 steals per game in the tournament and picking those pockets cleanly. Through four games, they have yet to allow an opponent to attempt more than 13 free throws.

     

    2. The starting backcourt will remain red hot.

    Ryan Arcidiacono (35.9 percent) and Jalen Brunson (36.8 percent) were marginally above-average three-point shooters during the regular season, but they have been unconscious in the NCAA tournament. Brunson is 6-of-10 and "Arch" is 11-of-19 for a combined percentage of 58.6.

    No duo can sustain that accuracy for an entire seasonheck, there have only been three individual players in the past two decades to shoot at least 53.2 percent in a season with at least 100 attemptsbut who's to say Villanova's backcourt can't keep it going for 80 more minutes?

     

    3. The Chef will keep cooking.

    Josh Hart is Mr. Everything for the Wildcats, but Daniel Ochefu might be their most important playera clause no oracle could have possibly foreseen three years ago when he averaged 3.5 points and 1.2 turnovers as a freshman.

    Through four tournament games, Ochefu is averaging 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals. Those aren't earth-shattering numbers, but his defense has been downright ridiculous. Iowa's Adam Woodbury, Miami's Tonye Jekiri and Kansas' Perry Ellis combined for just seven points and 12 rebounds in 84 minutes of action against Villanova.

Syracuse's Blueprint to a Title

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

    If all goes well for Syracuse, the following three things will happen, and the Orange will win it all.

     

    1. The defense will force a ton of live-ball turnovers.

    Syracuse didn't need many steals in the first two rounds against Dayton and Middle Tennessee, but forcing turnovers is what turned the tide in the comeback wins over Gonzaga and Virginia. They had nine steals against the Zags and 11 against the (usually turnover-averse) Cavaliers, and it felt like all 20 of those came in the second half when the Orange were relentless with their occasional spurts of full-court pressure.

     

    2. The three-point arc will befriend them once again.

    In each of their four regular-season wins over tournament teams (Connecticut, Duke, Notre Dame and Texas A&M), the Orange shot at least 40.0 percent from three-point range. Thus, it was assumed they would need to be lethal from beyond the arc to do much of anything in this year's tournament.

    Instead, Syracuse shot 36.4 percent against Dayton and 33.3 percent in the wins over Gonzaga and Virginia. Defense has been Syracuse's best friend in this tournament, but imagine what could happen if the defense sticks around while the three-point stroke joins the party. There was always a chance this team could be special with threes and D, and the Orange are now 18-0 when shooting at least 32 percent from three while holding the opposition to 70 points or fewer.

     

    3. Defensive rebounding woes don't get too out of hand.

    Aside from the gaps at the elbows, the biggest weakness of the 2-3 zone is defensive rebounding. No matter how big the frontcourt players have been, it has always been a problem for Syracuse. It's just inherently more difficult to box out when you have to locate the body in your area after the shot goes up.

    Sometimes it's a huge problem, like it was in the early March game against North Carolina in which the Tar Heels had 19 offensive rebounds. Other times, the Orange seem perfectly adequate on the defensive glass, like they were in both games against Virginia. If they can keep their remaining opponents from lighting up the scoreboard with second-chance points, the Orange could win two more games.

North Carolina's Blueprint to a Title

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    If all goes well for North Carolina, the following three things will happen, and the Tar Heels will win it all.

     

    1. The nation's most efficient offense keeps on trucking.

    The Tar Heels have been unstoppable, averaging 89.3 points per game and 133.2 points per 100 possessions in the NCAA tournament. Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry have each scored in double figures in all four tournament games. In fact, Paige, is the only member of that quartet that hasn't scored at least 10 points in 14 of the last 15 games.

    Helping keep the offense flowing, the Tar Heels have 59 offensive rebounds against just 37 turnovers. They have been far more likely to extend a possession than give one away. And with a 71.8 percent two-point clip against Notre Dame and 55.0 percent three-point accuracy against Indiana, it's hard to believe there have even been that many offensive rebounds to grab.

     

    2. Joel Berry will remain their unsung hero.

    Johnson and Paige are the seniors everyone is focusing on, but how about the job that North Carolina's sophomore point guard has been doing? Over his last seven games, Berry is averaging 15.0 points on 41.4 percent three-point shooting, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 turnovers. He has also made 47 of his last 50 free-throw attempts, giving North Carolina a lethal closer at the end of tight games.

     

    3. NRG Stadium will help their poor three-point defense.

    As we've mentioned elsewhere, it is historically difficult to shoot three-pointers in the venue where this year's Final Four is being held. For three of the four remaining teams, that's bad news. Villanova (43.1) Syracuse (42.2) and Oklahoma (40.6) each take more than 40 percent of their field-goal attempts from beyond the arc.

    But not the Tar Heels. They rank near the bottom of the national pecking order in that regard at just 26.8 percent. Better yet, three-point defense is North Carolina's biggest weakness, so Roy Williams and Co. have got to be the overwhelming favorite to win it all in Houston.

Predictions

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova

    Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET (TBS)

    When these teams met in December, Oklahoma had one of its six best three-point performances of the season (14-of-26), while Villanova had one of the worst shooting nights in the history of the three-point arc (4-of-32). There's almost no chance the perimeter disparity will be that wide in the rematch, so don't expect a repeat of Oklahoma's 78-55 blowout.

    Having said that, don't be surprised if we see a similar number of total three-point attempts (58). These teams love to let it fly and neither one does much to keep the opposition from doing the same. Villanova scores 33.4 percent of its points from three-point range, but its opponents get 33.3 percent of their points from beyond the arc. Oklahoma's numbers are 38.9 and 31.6, respectively, compared to the national average of 29.4.

    It should just boil down to which team makes more threes, and it's hard to go against Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard when three-pointers are the X-factor.

    Prediction: Oklahoma 76-72

     

    No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 Syracuse

    Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET (TBS)

    It has been said that it's difficult to beat a team three times in one season, but if that's your main argument for picking Syracuse to pull off this upset, go look at what Oregon did to Utah this year. And Oregon wasn't quite as good as North Carolina, and Utah was much better than Syracuse until two weeks ago.

    The Orange have played incredibly to get to this point, but North Carolina is just too hot on offense and too strong on the glass. In four tournament games, the Tar Heels have 59 offensive rebounds while their opponents have just 70 defensive rebounds. That's a 45.7 percent offensive rebounding rate that North Carolina is bringing to war against one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country.

    Syracuse's defense has been great, but North Carolina's offense has been greater. It's foolish to count out any team talented enough to reach the Final Four; however, it would easily be one of the five biggest upsets in Final Four history if Syracuse wins this one.

    Prediction: North Carolina 81-65

     

    No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Oklahoma

    Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET (TBS)

    Based on how poorly my Elite Eight predictions went, this matchup won't actually happen, so no use spending too much time thinking about it. However, this is where the venue becomes a problem for the Sooners.

    North Carolina's frontcourt is too much for Oklahoma to handle and three-pointers are too difficult to come by in NRG Stadium for the Sooners to trade enough threes for twos to win the game. If the game were being played in Lloyd Noble Center, I'd take Hield and Co. in a heartbeat. But in an arena where interior play will be key, look for Brice Johnson to lead the Tar Heels to victory.

    Prediction: North Carolina 78-68

     

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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