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Big Dance Journal
by Larry Ness - 04/01/2016
Big Dance Journal (Final 4)
Before moving to the Final 4, let’s give a shout out to George Washington (my dad’s alma mater) for its first-ever national postseason tournament title. The Colonials, led by three four-year senior starters in guards Garino and McDonald plus the 6-10 Larsen (that trio combined for 45 points in the championship game), as well at 6-9 Tyler Cavanaugh (a Wake Forest transfer who was named the MOP of the NIT by averaging 19.4 & 9.0 in five NIT wins), beat a 30-win Valpariao team 76-60 on Thursday night. Valpo entered holding opponents to 38.3 percent shooting (3rd in the nation) and 62.4 PPG (9th) but GW made 44.2 percent of its shots (8 of 19 on threes), while scoring 76 points (44 in the second half to break open a game the Colonials led 32-31 at the half). George Washington set a new school record for single-season wins with 28.
The 2016 NCAA Tournament resumes play Saturday from RNG Stadium in Houston with Villanova taking on Oklahoma in the first semifinal (both are No. 2 seeds), followed by an all-ACC clash between surprising Syracuse (1st-ever 10-seed to make the Final 4) and the lone No. 1 seed in the Final 4, North Carolina (note: Tar Heels were the AP’s preseason No. 1 team). Checking the tournament results to-date show favorites at 46-17 SU and 35-27-1 ATS (one pick-em). Amazingly after 64 games, it’s 32 overs and 32 unders.
Villanova (33-5) and Oklahoma (29-7) met back on Dec 7 in Hawaii (Pearl Harbor Classic) and it was a “no-contest,” as the Sooners rolled to a 78-55 win. We should expect a closer game here (you think?). Buddy Hield has turned the NCAA Tournament into a personal highlight reel averaging 29.3 PPG on 56.7 percent shooting. He joins fellow guards Cousins and Woodard plus forward Spangler in having started 104 consecutive games together (76-28, .731 record). The fifth starter is Khadeem Lattin (5.7-5.3- 2.1 BPG), who has also started every game this season plus is the grandson of former 1966 Texas Western championship game hero Dave Lattin. Villanova’s top five also started virtually every game together this season. Center Daniel Ochefu (10.1-7.6) missed three games due to a minor injury but the other four starters have played in all 38 games and only guard Brunson (9.8) comes up shy of averaging in double figures. The other three are leading scorer Hart (15.3-6.7), PG Arcidiacono (12.3-4.3 APG) and forward Jenkins (13.5-3.9).
Villanova has been dominating this tourney, going 4-0 SU and ATS, winning on average by 82.3-to-63.0 PPG. Oklahoma struggled in its first two games (0-2 ATS) but then CRUSHED 3-seed Texas A&M 77-63 and No. 1 seed Oregon, 80-68. The Sooners have outscored their four tournament opponents by an average of 14.3 points in the first half, so ‘Nova had better be ready from the opening tip. Villanova head coach Jay Wright knows his team was already manhandled by the Sooners and that Houston is not too far from the Oklahoma campus. However, Villanova is a different team now. "When we played Oklahoma earlier this season, Jalen (Brunson) was starting for the first time, Kris and Josh were starting for the first time," Wright told reporters earlier this week. "We were an inexperienced team and it really showed, so I think we are a much more experienced team now." That trio combined to go 1-of-16 from three-point range against Oklahoma but has posted a collective 42.6 percent mark from beyond the arc in the tournament.
This is not Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger’s “first rodeo.”He has led five different schools (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and now Oklahoma) to the Big Dance, with this year’s Oklahoma squad joining his 1994 Florida team in a trip to the Final 4. There are legitimate questions regarding how much the deep background at NRG Stadium (home of the Houston Texans) will faze the shooting of both teams but there are no questions that BOTH teams are capable of winning it all here in Houston. Villanova is currently (12 noon ET on Friday) a two point favorite.
In the ACC clash between Syracuse and North Carolina, the Tar Heels are deservedly a prohibitive 9 or 9 1/2-point favorite. After all, this marks the schools 19th Final 4 appearance (most of all-time) and head coach Roy Williams is in his 8th Final 4 (four with Kansas and four with North Carolina, including winning a title in 2005 and 2009). As noted earlier, the Tar Heels opened the year as the AP’s No. 1 team and have gone 4-0 SU & ATS in the tourney so for, outscoring opponents on average, 89.3-to-73.3 PPG. North Carolina dismantled Indiana in the Sweet 16 and Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, led by the 6-9 Johnson (21.0 & 9.8 thru four games). Guards Paige (14.0) and Berry (13.3) plus forward Jackson (13.0) have also all scored in double digits in each game so far.
Yes, many legitimately wondered if the Orange even belonged in the field of 68 but there is no denying that Jim Boeheim has been pushing the right buttons in the Big Dance. Syracuse may have been among the last teams to get into the NCAA tournament after a rough closing stretch but a 4-0 SU & ATS run (allowing 54.9 PPG) has Jim Boeheim in his 5th Final 4 (won it all back in 2003) in this, his his 40th season as Syracuse’s head coach. North Carolina has beaten Syracuse twice this season, 84-73 in the Carrier Dome and then 75-70 at the Dean Dome. Boeheim’s 2-3 zone plus the deep background at NRG Stadium could give the Tar Heels trouble.
6-8 freshman Tyler Lydon was a non-factor in the first meeting but was a significant contributor in the rematch, scoring 12 points off the bench. He’s averaged 10.8 & 6.0 in the tourney so far, with 6-8 forward Tyler Roberson averaging a double-double (10.3-11.8 boards) in the NCAAs. The 6-7 Gbinije (17.6-4.1-4.4) has been the team's MVP all season plus freshman guard Richardson and senior guard Cooney, won’t back down from any backcourt in the nation. Can a 13-loss Syracuse team really advance to the title game? If not, will Syracuse stay with the number? To be determined.
Championship game Journal available by 12 noon ET on Monday.