The University of North Carolina Tar Heels will be on the brink of their 6th NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball title when they face the Villanova Wildcats Monday night at Houston's NRG Stadium.
North Carolina was the model of efficiency and athleticism against No. 10 Syracuse, having defeated the Orange 83-66 by scoring an astounding 50 points in the paint — going inside with monotonous regularity to effectively dismantle Syracuse's routinely stifling 2-3 zone defense.
This is one of the more impressive factors that has made Tar Heels Monday night's favorite. Though they have typically effective 3-point scorers — led by guard Marcus Paige — UNC as a team only hit a very average 4 for 17 from beyond the arc Saturday. But on the other hand, they even more dramatically showed that's just another arrow in a very well-stocked quiver.
Syracuse had allowed only 55.8 points per game in this year's tournament, but UNC almost scored as many as that in the paint. "They're just too big and strong and good," the Orange's veteran coach Jim Boeheim said afterward.
This is now Villanova's Sisyphean challenge.
Villanova, for their part, destroyed the Oklahoma Sooners in Saturday's early game, 95-51. Their 44-point blowout set the NCAA Final Four record for margin of victory, and their 71.4 percent field-goal percentage was — incredibly — a distant second to the all-time leader in that category, the 1985 Rollie Massimino-led National Champion Villanova squad (78.6 percent in the title game against Georgetown).
But Villanova will have a hard time stopping a North Carolina team that routinely has at least four scorers in double-figures, with reserve specialist Isaiah Hicks often making it a five-some. Against Syracuse, the Tar Heels grabbed a Herculean 43 rebounds, though they only scored three second-chance points. Don't count on that happening two games in a row. Inside big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks will be just too powerful and athletic for the Wildcats' Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu.
Villanova benefited in their game against Oklahoma with stellar shooting, but also by 17 (often very sloppy) Sooners turnovers, in addition to 20 Oklahoma fouls. The Wildcats also stole the ball twice as often (12-6), and shared the ball much more generously (14 assists to 8 for Oklahoma).
Against North Carolina, Villanova will have to persist in their stellar shooting — led by the trio of guard and four-year captain Ryan Arcidiacono, power forward Jenkins and fellow backcourt specialist Josh Hart (who combined for 56 of the Wildcats' 95 points Saturday night), but will also have to slow things down on defense against a Tar Heels team that thrives off the transition game. For UNC, speed is a virtue, and virtually no one in the NCAA is more proficient at it. Also count on Carolina's guards Marcus Paige and Joel Berry smothering the perimeter and looking for steals.
But don't expect any lopsided victories here. According to Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com, UNC has a 54 percent possibility of winning the game, while perennial go-to NCAA hoop expert Ken Pomeroy gives the Wildcats a slender 1-point victory (77-76).
In any event, as befits a national championship bout, this has all the essential elements for the most exciting game of the year.