March may be over, but the NCAA tournament still has a final couple of acts to complete. On Saturday, it's a doubleheader as the tourney's Final Four battle it out at NRG Stadium in Houston for spots in the national championship game on Monday.
The first game on Saturday features a matchup of No. 2 seeds in Oklahoma and Villanova. As for the nightcap, No. 1 North Carolina is the only top seed to survive the gauntlet to this point and will be taking on an unexpected, unlikely opponent in No. 10 Syracuse.
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Here are the latest odds and predictions for the Final Four. Odds are courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Friday, April 1 at 7 a.m. ET.
|2016 NCAA Final Four Schedule, Predictions|
|Saturday, April 2|
|Time (ET)||Matchup (w/ spread)||Over/Under||TV||Prediction|
|6:09 p.m.||No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova (-2)||145.5||TBS||Villanova 72-69 Oklahoma|
|8:49 p.m.||No. 1 North Carolina (-9.5) vs. No. 10 Syracuse||144.5||TBS||UNC 70-60 Syracuse|
|NCAA.com, OddsShark.com, predictions by author|
Check out Bleacher Report's live updating bracket to track your picks along the road to the Final Four.
No. 10 Syracuse vs. No. 1 North Carolina
Syracuse has defied the odds in reaching the Final Four. The Orange lost 13 games, finished tied for ninth in the ACC and dropped five of its last six games heading into the NCAA tournament.
However, on the strength of some brilliant coaching by Jim Boeheim, a pesky 2-3 zone base defense and a diabolical full-court press, Syracuse is just two games away from winning the national title.
As exciting as it is for the illustrious program to be in this position, Syracuse won't get past North Carolina on Saturday. No. 1 Virginia had two days to prepare for Syracuse's zone defense and previously only faced them once this season, on Jan. 24.
North Carolina has battled and beaten Syracuse twice this year and has had nearly a full week to prepare for Syracuse's defense. Where Virginia relied on slowing down the game to a crawl, North Carolina—boasting the nation's most efficient offense, per KenPom.com— has the ability to score in games of any pace or style.
Brice Johnson is averaging 21 points per game in the NCAA tournament, while another big man, Justin Jackson, is putting up 13 points per contest. Syracuse lacks size, and North Carolina can pound the ball inside, collapsing the 2-3 zone.
Of course, disrupting the zone defense is easier said than done, and the Washington Post's Neil Greenberg noted the Tar Heels could have trouble balancing the offense with shots from perimeter:
Syracuse also catches a break on the perimeter, where teams can use the three-point shot to help neutralize the zone. Since zone defenders are responsible for covering territory and not a specific man, it leaves open the possibility of getting beat from long range. But North Carolina shot just 32.1 percent from beyond the three-point line this season, ranking 285th in the country. Syracuse, meanwhile, has held opponents to the 13th lowest three-point percentage this season (30.8 percent, league average is 34.7 percent).
To make it even more difficult for North Carolina, this game is being played at Houston’s NRG Stadium, “a shooter’s nightmare,” where tournament teams have shot 32.2 percent since it opened in 2002.
If scoring on the outside proves difficult, the Tar Heels might need another solid offensive contribution from 6'9" Kennedy Meeks, who has improved his play as the tournament's progressed and scored 25 points combined in the past two games.
Assuming Syracuse can jam up North Carolina's offense and hold it well below 80 points, it will still need to do a fair bit of scoring on it's own. This is no easy feat, as UNC rates as the 22nd most efficient defense in the nation, per KenPom.com.
Syracuse needed 21 second-half points from Malachi Richardson to key its remarkable second-half comeback against Virginia in the Elite Eight, and there's no guarantee he will have similar success against UNC. Richardson is shooting just 30.6 percent from the field in the NCAA tournament.
Senior forward Michael Gbinije has sparked much of the tournament run with his scoring, but he had an off night against Virginia, scoring 11 points on 13 shots from the field. Freshman forward Tyler Lydon and senior guard Trevor Cooney have made important offensive contributions in this tournament run, but neither appears capable of taking over a game.
Short of a Herculean offensive performance from Gbinije or Richardson—a difficult prospect with Johnson and the Tar Heels big men guarding the rim—Syracuse won't be able to muster enough offense to compliment its stellar defense. North Carolina will pound the ball inside and get an ugly win.
Prediction: North Carolina 70-60 Syracuse
No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 2 Oklahoma
As the seedings and spread indicate, Villanova-Oklahoma is a much tougher matchup to call outright than Syracuse-North Carolina. FiveThirtyEight gives the Wildcats a 54 percent chance of beating Oklahoma, whereas the Tar Heels are given a 70 percent chance of beating out Syracuse.
While Oklahoma handily defeated Villanova 78-55 way back on Dec. 7—a lopsided win despite Sooners star Buddy Hield yielding 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting from the field—this upcoming contest should be a much more competitive affair. Hield is practically counting on it.
''It's not a benefit because they're a completely different team right now,'' he said, per the Associated Press (via CBS Sports). ''That was back in December and they had conference play and everything. So they're a completely different team, better defensively. So I'm just looking forward to it.''
Villanova shot just 4-of-32 from three-point range in that contest, but are shooting 46 percent from distance in the NCAA tournament. Senior center Daniel Ochefu managed just eight points in the December meeting, but has scored in double digits in three of four NCAA tournament games. Even a brilliant Kansas squad could only hold Villanova to a pedestrian 40.4 percent shooting from the field in the Elite Eight.
Hield mentioned defense, and Villanova has certainly proved itself in that regard, holding a stacked Kansas squad to 59 points.
As noted above by Greenberg, NRG Stadium hasn't been kind to shooting teams, so the ability of Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart to play pesky, relentless defense should matter more than how well they knock down shots. This is especially true since Oklahoma has Hield, arguably the best player on any of the Final Four teams.
Hield is averaging 29.3 points per game in the NCAA tournament on 56.7 percent shooting from the field and 47.5 percent from three-point range. Against Oregon in the Elite Eight, Hield nailed eight three-pointers en route to a stellar 37-point performance.
Villanova received its due for how well the team shot in the first three rounds of the tournament, but no one Wildcats player is as hot or as talented offensively as Hield. And when Hield had a human-like 17 points against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, guard Jordan Woodard popped up for 22 points and the defense held the Aggies to just 63 points to make for a comfortable victory.
In short, it's Hield and a talented supporting cast against Villanova's excellent defense and strong shooters.
This game could go either way, but Villanova's coterie of long-distance shooters will do just enough to overcome the singular talents of Hield and deliver a razor-thin Wildcats victory.
Prediction: Villanova 72-69 Oklahoma