The downside of the ACC occupying all four spots in the East and Midwest regional finals is there is pretty much zero mystery about how the teams involved will match up with each other. Virginia and Syracuse have already met once this season, while this will be the third showdown between North Carolina and Notre Dame.
At the same time, that familiarity is a bit of a blessing. Rather than wondering whether Virginia can handle Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, the answer is known (yes, the Cavaliers can). Likewise, Notre Dame can slow down North Carolina enough to win (though that happened in South Bend and not on a neutral court).
There’s also the matter of knowing who is capable of a monster day who might not be the obvious choice. It’s a given Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, Syracuse’s Michael Gbinije, Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson and North Carolina’s Brice Johnson could all have a major influence on the course of events Sunday. But who else might?
Based on the combination of how they’re playing now and how they fared earlier in the season against the same opponent they’ll face Sunday, here are four players who could ultimately make the difference in the pursuit of their team’s Final Four dreams.
Virginia: London Perrantes. The junior guard ranks third in scoring for the top-seeded Cavaliers (29-7), who are seeking their first Final Four appearance since 1984. But there’s no question he enjoys facing Syracuse.
In three career games against the Orange, Perrantes has 24 assists and seven turnovers in 105 minutes of work. Along the way, the Cavaliers have shot 22 of 51 from 3-point range (a perfectly credible 43.1 percent) against Syracuse since Jim Boeheim’s program entered the league.
Perrantes was always a guy who minimized mistakes, but he’s evolved into a greater scoring threat this season. He scored 16 points in Virginia’s Jan. 24 defeat of Syracuse in Charlottesville, making four 3-pointers along the way. Fresh off a nine-assist, no-turnover game against Iowa State in the regional semifinals, Perrantes is well-positioned for another excellent showing.
Syracuse: Malachi Richardson. The myth about facing Virginia’s defense is that it gives up nothing. No defensive scheme is perfect. The pack-line is exceptional at denying good looks anywhere near the basket. A team that bases its offensive approach on chucking it inside will quickly find itself up a creek.
There is greater vulnerability on the perimeter, which makes sense if the general idea is to deny penetration and passes into the post. That’s not to say the Cavaliers don’t defend on the outside; Brogdon, after all, is quite deserving of his ACC defensive player of the year award.
But an ace sharpshooter can do some damage. Enter Richardson, a freshman who scored 23 points (including a 6 of 10 night from 3-point range) against Virginia the first time around. With Gbinije around, the 10th-seeded Orange (22-13) has someone else to occupy Brogdon. Expect Virginia coach Tony Bennett to scheme better for Richardson, but if Syracuse pulls an upset, he’ll play a significant role.
North Carolina: Isaiah Hicks. There’s no truth to the rumor Hicks is still getting called for fouls from Friday night’s rout of Indiana in the regional semifinals. His decidedly off night (seven minutes, five fouls, four points, two rebounds) was easily the most lamentable part of the Tar Heels’ dominant showing, especially since Indiana was bound to make its share of outside shots as it usually does.
The good news for Hicks? He shouldn’t be down for long. In a regular-season loss in South Bend, the junior forward had 12 points and four rebounds in 19 minutes. He was even better earlier this month against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals, stitching together his first double-double as a Tar Heel (11 points and a career-best 15 rebounds).
The top-seeded Tar Heels (31-6) can’t count on shooting 55 percent from the perimeter again like they did on Friday. But unlike that game, this sets up as more of Hicks’ kind of game rather than one particularly well-suited for Kennedy Meeks. If North Carolina gets a bounceback game from Hicks, its already considerable chances of advancing improve even more.
Notre Dame: V.J. Beachem. The junior forward has produced decent – not great – results against North Carolina this season, averaging 10.5 points in Notre Dame’s two meetings with the Tar Heels. But in this case, solid past performances combined with stout play of late tip the nod from Bonzie Colson (averaging 17 points and seven rebounds against Carolina) to Beachem.
In five games since the start of the ACC tournament, Beachem is averaging 16.4 points, well ahead of his season rate of 11.9 per game. In that span, he’s shooting 31 of 50 from the floor (62 percent) and 16 of 30 from 3-point range (53.3 percent).
The sixth-seeded Irish (24-11) made only three 3-pointers in their victory over North Carolina earlier in the season. They probably aren’t replicating that result with similar outside shooting Sunday night, but chances are decent Beachem makes that many outside shots on his own against the Tar Heels in the regional final.