HOUSTON — For those who may question whether 10th- seeded Syracuse can step onto the Final Four stage Saturday night at NRG Stadium and pull a semifinal upset over a top-seeded North Carolina team that already has swept two games from the Orange this season, please see Exhibit A — Virginia, the top-seeded team in the Midwest Regional.
Syracuse (23-13) lost to the Cavaliers in the teams’ only regular-season matchup but overcame a 16-point second-half deficit in the Midwest final to set up a third game with the Tar Heels (32-6), a team the Orange knows very well.
UNC has steamrolled NCAA Tournament opposition by an average of 16 points, but Syracuse blew a six-point second-half lead at home in an 84-73 loss and trailed by one point with 2:23 left in a 75-70 loss at Carolina.
“We were right there in both games,” Syracuse senior guard Trevor Cooney said Friday. “We had them at home until they went on a little run at the end. We had them at Chapel Hill, which is one of the toughest places to play in the country . . . I mean, we can play with these guys. We proved that the last two times we played them; we just need to be better at the end. Both of these games give us confidence to go into this game.”
As the first 10th seed to make the Final Four and only the fourth double-digit seed to do it, the Orange has gained confidence on each step of the journey, especially with a comeback against Gonzaga before the Virginia game.
North Carolina may have had an easy time against everyone else, but Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone is a defense that could cause matchup problems by making it difficult for Tar Heels big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks to post up inside while also allowing Syracuse to cover three-point shooters Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II.
“They can definitely shoot the ball from [three-point range], so we have to stop their shooters and stop the ball from getting into the paint,” Syracuse center DaJuan Coleman said. “That’s the big key. The first two games were really close, and we felt we could have won. We know we can play with them, and we’ve hung with them every time we’ve played.”
Johnson, who has been a tough cover all season, shot 13-for-21 in two games against the Orange but was held to 15.0 points per game.
“When Brice gets the ball, you’ve got to make it tough for him,” Cooney said. “He’s going to be in the high post and he’s going to get in the low post. You’ve got to wall him up [away from the basket] and make him take tough shots.”
Boeheim said North Carolina gets the ball inside and up the court in transition “as well as anybody in the country,” and that will be a focus for Syracuse on defense. Rebounding is important because the Tar Heels have feasted on second-chance points during the tournament.
If one thing worries Boeheim, it’s his own offense. “Our offense has been the weak spot for us over the course of the season,” he said, noting the Orange won the Battle for Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas in November because they shot 50 percent from the field and almost that well from three-point range. “We haven’t done that since.”