Michael Gbinije (17.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) vs. Joel Berry (12.8 ppg, 3.6 apg)
Gbinije is Syracuse’s point-forward, and his 6-foot-7 frame is especially problematic defensively, as he led the ACC in steals per game (2.0) at the top of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. He rarely leaves the floor, averaging 38.5 minutes per game in the NCAA tournament. Gbinije has been the Orange’s most consistent player all year. The Tar Heels don’t need nearly as much from Joel Berry as the Orange need from Gbinije in order to be successful.
Trevor Cooney (12.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg) vs. Marcus Paige (12.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
Now that Paige has found his shooting stroke, watch out. He hit four 3s in the Sweet 16 romp of Indiana before the game was four minutes old and shot 8-for-15 (53.3 percent) from deep last weekend. Paige’s emergence as an outside shooting threat once again gives the Tar Heels a dimension they haven’t had all year and gives the Orange a new problem to account for defensively. It won’t be as easy to pack in and guard the middle of the floor if Paige is consistently hitting his shots.
Like Gbinije, Cooney is good at disrupting passing lanes and has hit on 42.5 percent of his 3s (7-for-15) during the NCAA tournament.
Malachi Richardson (13.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) vs. Justin Jackson (12.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
No player has come on as strong as Richardson in the NCAA tournament, as the freshman took over down the stretch of the Orange’s shocking comeback win over Virginia in the Elite Eight. Richardson scored 21 of his 23 points in the second-half as the Orange erased a 16-point deficit in its 68-62 win. Richardson has been streaky all year, and the Virginia game was a perfect snapshot of that. He started 0-for-7 from the floor before his second-half takeover. For Syracuse to have a chance to beat the Tar Heels, Richardson will need to play like he did in the final 20 minutes against the Cavaliers.
Jackson is an X-factor for the Tar Heels, as he, more than any of his teammates, has the ability to drive into the zone and potentially open up shots from himself and others.
Tyler Roberson (9.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg) vs. Brice Johnson (17.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg)
Johnson has had one of the best seasons in college basketball, as evidenced by his selection as a first-team consensus all-American. The Orange will have to pick its poison with Johnson. In the first meeting between the two teams, Johnson camped out in the high post—traditionally the soft-spot in the Syracuse zone—and recorded a career-high eight assists operating from there. In the second game, the Orange focused on denying Johnson the ball there, which opened up more space on the perimeter for the guards. Neither option is great for Syracuse.
Also, Johnson’s offensive rebounding prowess will be crucial, as the zone is normally less set for second-chance opportunities.
Roberson has been up and down this year – he grabbed 20 rebounds in the January win at Duke, for example, but was the subject of Boeheim’s public ire in late February when the famously callous coach said he wouldn’t be playing Roberson if he had any other options.
DaJuan Coleman (4.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg) vs. Kennedy Meeks (9.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Neither Coleman nor Meeks is the focal point of their respective teams, but Meeks played as well as he has all year in the wins last weekend against Indiana and Notre Dame. The Orange don’t have another great option in the post, so anything Meeks could do to wear down Coleman would be a major plus for the Tar Heels. Like Johnson, Meeks will need to rebound well to set up second-chance opportunities.
Syracuse has Duke-like depth (read: virtually none), but freshman forward Tyler Lydon has had a strong NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels have plenty of support off the bench with Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James