By Harry Allison
Okay, it’s the Monday after the regional finals and we have the Final Four:
North Carolina against Syracuse and Villanova against Oklahoma.
The following ranking is based on not just what the four remaining squads have done over the past two weeks, but how they’ve looked throughout this season.
1. North Carolina Tar Heels (31-6)
The Tar Heels have to be at the top of the list. They became the favorites to win the tournament once Kansas lost. They convincingly tore through their region, never getting truly pushed in any second half, and so here is Roy Williams just two wins away from a third national title.
UNC is the best team in the Final Four because it has such a complete attack on offense. Brice Johnson was one of the 10 best offensive players in the country this year, and it seems Marcus Paige has found his shooting streak again. This is the No. 2 offense in all of college basketball. The Heels are so good on the glass and, though they don’t need to, can go nine deep. Just Williams’ style.
Here’s how you know UNC is dangerous: Justin Jackson is probably going to become the best NBA player, eventually, on this team. Yet he’s not even No. 1, 2 or 3 on the scouting report. It’s classic UNC. Just have dudes there on the roster who can hurt you left and right. The Tar Heels were the preseason No. 1 team, and now they’re making the prognosticators look smart by getting to Houston. If UNC plays a full 40 minutes — which it hasn’t in some of its games over the past month — then it’s not losing.
2. Oklahoma Sooners (29-7)
The Sooners have Buddy Hield, the biggest star to hit the Final Four since, probably, Kemba Walker with UConn in 2011. And Hield’s March has reached Kemba-like levels. His season, too. The national player of the year is averaging 25.4 points, and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 47 percent from 3-point range. Oklahoma is the second-best 3-point shooting team in the country (Michigan State ranks No. 1), and has hit the 80-point barrier in half its games this season.
Lon Kruger’s team doesn’t get enough credit for how good it is on offense, either. The Sooners have a reliable duo in side with the gangly Ryan Spangler and the built-like-a-boar Khadeem Lattin. They defend well and aren’t prone to fouling.
In the year of the Golden State Warriors, the Sooners are the college basketball version. Not as lethal, not as dominant, but just as fun at this level. Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, Dinjiyl Walker and Ryan Spangler are all a threat to launch from beyond 22 feet.
3. Villanova Wildcats (33-5)
Putting Villanova at No. 3 just shows how strong a field we’ve got at the Final Four. The Wildcats are No. 4 in offensive efficiency and No. 7 in defensive points per possession allowed according to KenPom.com. They’re favored against Oklahoma. But I go with OU over Villanova, just barely, because I think Villanova doesn’t have the athletic ability to win the game if both teams are playing at their best.
Of course this Wildcats team is good enough, strong enough, lethal enough from all three levels to win the program’s second national title, the first of course coming in 1985.Villanova has been one of the three or four best programs in college basketball over the past three seasons, amassing 95 wins — more than any other program in the sport — and helping lift the Big East into a new era.
Ryan Arcidiacono has been unreal from deep, and he pairs nicely with Daniel Ochefu down low and Josh Hart from the mid-range. Then you’ve got Kris Jenkins, who has become a do-everything kind of scorer in the past six weeks, and oh yeah, Mikal Bridges is the best pro prospect on the team. Right, right: And Jalen Brunson is probably going to become the next rock-solid four-year reliability at point guard for Jay Wright. This team, more than any other in the Final Four, is capable of adapting to the most styles and still beating you.
4. Syracuse Orange (23-13)
Of course the Orange have to be last. SU ties a record for the most losses for any Final Four team. There is no Carmelo Anthony on this group. But you know what? Syracuse has a strong case for having the best coach — and I don’t write that lightly. Every coach in this Final Four will be in the Hall of Fame one day. Every one. And Boeheim is probably the best.
Malachi Richardson is one heck of a player, and a guy who will have NBA options this spring. Tyler Lydon is the other superb freshman, someone who’s had one of the better under-the-radar seasons. He comes up big in huge moments, as he showed over the weekend.
The Orange will try to upset UNC with its classic 2-3 zone … and maybe the press? Hey, the press rattled Gonzaga, and then stunned the country when Virginia was stymied into submission. UNC of course can go. But it’s not a reliable 3-point shooting team; it doesn’t even attempt that many 3s. Syracuse is absolutely capable of beating UNC. But in terms of power rankings, it’s the worst collective team in Houston. That’s not direspect. The other three teams have shown all year long how good they can be. Syracuse lost to Georgetown and St. John’s.
Now those losses don’t matter. Now Syracuse is back in another Final Four, giving us a great surprise, and isn’t always fun to have some unexpected team get to the final weekend? You bet it is.