Men's Basketball

Final Four guide: It will come down to North Carolina and Villanova

Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, right, drives to the basket against Oregon’s Elgin Cook during the first half in the West Regional finals. Hield scored 37 points as Oklahoma advanced 80-68.
Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, right, drives to the basket against Oregon’s Elgin Cook during the first half in the West Regional finals. Hield scored 37 points as Oklahoma advanced 80-68. TNS

Once again, Houston finds itself as the site to cap an unpredictable NCAA Tournament.

As expected, this year’s March Madness proved to be another upset-filled tournament that wrecked most brackets across the country.

Almost half the brackets had either Kansas (25 percent) or Michigan State (22 percent) winning the title, according to the NCAA’s Capital One Bracket Challenge game.

Neither of the favorites reached the Final Four. Kansas saw its title hopes dashed on Saturday as Villanova outplayed the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight. And Michigan State joined a dubious list of No. 2 seeds who lost in the first round when Middle Tennessee State pulled off a miracle.

Those types of things have become commonplace over the years and is the reason the tournament is one of the great events in sports.

When NRG Stadium hosted the Final Four for the first time in 2011, no 1- or 2-seeds were around.

Instead, Houstonians were greeted with a couple of Cinderella stories in VCU and Butler, and a couple of perennial powers that got hot at the right time in Kentucky and eventual champ UConn.

This time around, a 1-seed, a pair of 2-seeds and an improbable run by a 10-seed reached the Final Four, nothing too abnormal. However the four didn’t include the schools most of the country thought.

A look at the Final Four:

Oklahoma

West Region 2 seed

The Path: def. CSU Bakersfield 82-68, def VCU 85-81, def. Texas A&M 77-63, def. Oregon 80-68.

Why they’ll win: Buddy Hield. He’s the best player in the country, and he’s peaking at the right time. The Sooners didn’t look great in the first weekend of the tournament, but turned it up a notch last weekend to reach their first Final Four under Lon Kruger. OU has the talent level to win it all, and made 50 percent of its 3-pointers against Oregon on Saturday. Also, don’t expect the moment to be too big for the Sooners who are laden with veterans and played in the country’s statistically strongest conference. And don’t forget that OU has already whipped its semifinal opponent (Villanova) once, an early-season 78-55 victory in Hawaii.

Why they’ll lose: For as great as Hield has been, he has shown signs of streakiness as a shooter. He can go on a cold streak from time to time, which leaves the Sooners vulnerable. On top of that, OU has struggled inside this tournament as Ryan Spangler has been inconsistent. Yes, the Sooners posted two impressive double-digit wins in the West Regional, but it is difficult to sustain that high level of play every night.

Prediction: Oklahoma falls to Villanova in the semifinals. There’s no question Hield is great and he could easily carry the Sooners to a national title. But the thought here is that OU relies on him too heavily and that will eventually catch up to them. If Hield has an off night, or a team is able to get him frustrated, who can pick up the slack for the Sooners? Even if Hield goes off, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a win. He scored 46 points in an early January loss in triple overtime at Kansas, and 33 in a loss at Texas last month.

Villanova

South Region 2 seed

The Path: def. UNC Asheville 86-56, def. Iowa 87-68, def. Miami (Fla.) 92-69, def. Kansas 64-59.

Why they’ll win: Jay Wright might be one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the game, and is doing as good a job as any in the country. He designed a perfect game plan to knock off top-seeded Kansas by minimizing Perry Ellis’ effect, and will certainly look to find ways to contain and frustrate Buddy Hield in the semifinals. ’Nova isn’t filled with NBA-type players, but it is a scrappy, fundamentally sound group that can hang with any team in the country. They have multiple scoring options inside and out, and are playing well on the defensive end. After knocking off the top overall seed, nobody has more confidence than the Wildcats.

Why they’ll lose: Buddy Hield. Villanova will do its best, but it’s easier said than done. Also, it’s hard to imagine ’Nova winning the title if it has another poor night from 3-point range. The Wildcats went only 4 for 18 from beyond the arc against Kansas, well below their season average.

Prediction: Villanova cuts down the nets for its first title since 1985. The Wildcats are a deep, talented team that has multiple threats on offense, is the best free-throw shooting team left and plays suffocating defense. There’s a reason they earned a No. 1 ranking in the regular season, and have shown to be one of the most complete teams in the tournament. They knocked off the top overall seed despite missing 14 3-pointers. That says it all about what type of team Villanova has.

Syracuse

Midwest Region 10 seed

The Path: def. Dayton 70-51, def. Middle Tennessee State 75-50, def. Gonzaga 63-60, def. Virginia 68-62.

Why they’ll win: Many thought Syracuse, which lost five of its final six, didn’t deserve to be in the Big Dance. But the Orange is the prototypical underachieving regular-season team that simply got hot at the right time. That became evident in their 29-8 run to overcome a 16-point deficit and knock off 1-seed Virginia on Sunday. Jim Boeheim is known for his signature zone defense. And Syracuse has to go into the Final Four feeling it’s playing with house money. It’s only the fourth time since 1979 that a double-digit seed has reached the Final Four.

Why they’ll lose: At some point, Syracuse will show its flaws that made it a bubble team, right? The Orange has won only six straight games once this season — to start the year — and will be facing an uphill battle to do it again to win the school’s second national title. Freshman guard Malachi Richardson, the star of the Elite Eight game, has been streaky throughout the season, and it’s hard to count on that type of run on the Final Four stage.

Prediction: The last — and only — time Syracuse won a championship, it had a freshman sensation named Carmelo Anthony. The Orange doesn’t have Carmelo this year, and the magic eventually runs out in the semifinals. It’s hard to see this team become the first double-digit seed to win the championship, even with this being the kind of season where that would make sense. In the end, there are more talented and deeper teams than ’Cuse in the Final Four.

North Carolina

East Region 1 seed

The Path: def. Florida Gulf Coast 83-67, def. Providence 85-66, def. Indiana 101-86, def. Notre Dame 88-74.

Why they’ll win: The Tar Heels are the lone 1-seed to reach the Final Four, and arguably have more talent than anyone left. They’ve won every game by an average of 16 points. Senior forward Brice Johnson is a first-round NBA talent, and is playing well in the tournament. So is fellow big man Kennedy Meeks, as well as guard Marcus Paige. UNC is a team that can get on a run and never look back. Coach Roy Williams is no stranger to getting his teams ready for the Final Four stage; he is looking for his third title with UNC since 2005.

Why they’ll lose: North Carolina is a difficult team to find flaws in, but keeping its composure might rank as the top priority at this point. Johnson had a costly technical foul in the second half against Notre Dame on Sunday, something the Tar Heels managed to overcome but simply can’t have happen in the Final Four. UNC has also struggled on perimeter defense throughout the season, as opponents have made 35.7 3-point attempts this season. The Tar Heels have improved in that department of late, however. Notre Dame exposed that flaw by going 9 for 18 from beyond-the-arc.

Prediction: North Carolina welcomes seeing Syracuse in the semifinals, a team it has beaten twice already this season. The Tar Heels reach the title game, but fall short of winning a third title under Williams and the school’s sixth in the NCAA Tournament era. Villanova, our projected winner, is a balanced team offensively and defensively, and will hit enough 3-pointers to edge North Carolina.

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

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