And welcome to game day. And not just any – but Final Four Saturday. Oklahoma and Villanova in the early game here, North Carolina and Syracuse in the later one.
Before we get going with some pregame thoughts, notes and quotes, let's begin with a collection of our coverage this week, which I think has been outstanding. I am biased. But also correct.
--From columnist Luke DeCock, a column about UNC seeking to follow in the footsteps of the Tar Heels' 2005 and 2009 national championship teams.
--Been a long road the past several years for Roy Williams. Through the eyes of his assistant coaches, how this journey has changed Williams.
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--And if you think Roy might consider retiring after this season, he has some words for you. On his health and future plans.
--Marcus Paige puts up numbers for UNC, and then crunches them. A cool column here from Luke on Paige's appreciation of analytics.
--Here's Laura Keeley on one of the most interesting stories here in Houston. Few people tonight at NRG Stadium will be prouder than Nate Britt's parents.
--Hey, NCAA President Mark Emmert has an update on the UNC investigation. Well, not really … but here's what he has to say, anyway.
--UNC and Syracuse meeting in the Final Four represents a rare ACC matchup on college basketball's grandest stage. About that.
--The Tar Heels and Orange are playing for the third time this season. From Laura Keeley, a position-by-position look at how they match up.
--Taylor Sharp, a Morehead-Cain scholar at UNC, has been to all of UNC's NCAA tournament games during his time at the school. On his friendship with Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige.
--Here I am on video talking some UNC-Syracuse. You’ve got to see this.
--Roy Williams has stuck to his inside-outside offensive philosophy over the years, and it has clearly paid dividends. It’s a system that has some critics but one that has worked this season.
--Joel James didn't start playing basketball until he was 15 and he didn't have a bed to sleep in until he arrived at UNC. On his long road to the Final Four.
--Regardless of what happens the next few days, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are reaching their end point. “Man,” Johnson said when he thought about it.
--And hey – there are, in fact, some Syracuse fans in the Triangle. On the outnumbered minority.
--Our photographer Robert Willett is excellent. Some of his images the past two days covering UNC in Houston:
--Another from Luke: North Carolina's HB2 law could have a great effect on whether the state hosts NCAA tournament games.
--You know, Roy Williams has kind of a unique, dadgum way of talking. Call it Roynacular. A story about that.
--So what, exactly, are the financial implications when ACC teams make the kind of run UNC and Syracuse have this season? Luke has it covered.
Lots of great stuff there.
And now for some pregame thoughts:
1. UNC is where we thought it'd be.
Well, here are: the Final Four in Houston. This is where the Tar Heels thought they'd be entering the season. And this is where we are. It's not surprising in the least that UNC is here. How it happened, though? That's another story. It took starting off without Marcus Paige, and then losing Kennedy Meeks for a stretch, and then the ascent of Brice Johnson, and then enduring Paige's shooting slump, and the emergence of Joel Berry, and then some difficult February defeats, and then a difficult loss at Virginia, and then two big wins against Syracuse and Duke to end the regular season, and then the defensive turning point against Pitt in the ACC tournament, and then beating Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game and then … well, you get the picture. Also: Paige has been more like his old self of late, the defense has been spectacular, Johnson has been even better than he was in the regular season. And he we are, in Houston.
2. Win or lose, the end of an era is upon us.
Hard to believe that this is the end of the road for Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Four years flies by. I remember Paige as a somewhat timid freshman in Maui, completely out of breath against Butler amid an ugly, lopsided defeat there. I remember Johnson as this shy, skinny (or skinnier) kid who never had much to say during interviews four years ago. And now they've become two of the best stories in college basketball: Johnson's emergence into an All-American, Paige's road to becoming a three-time academic All-American and a representative of what's right in college sports. It's rare for high-profile guys to stick around as long as Paige and Johnson have, so UNC fans have had the rare opportunity (among major schools, at least) to get to know these guys and watch them develop over the years. Has been a memorable ride for them.
3. Three things to watch between UNC and Syracuse.
–How UNC attacks the zone.
Tar Heels had the high-low game working with great success against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone in the first regular-season meeting between these teams. In the second game, Syracuse did a good job of taking that away and forced UNC into a lot of outside shots. Would think that's Syracuse's strategy today.
–The NRG effect.
Will it matter? Joel Berry, UNC's sophomore guard, said on Friday that there were a lot of air balls early on during the Tar Heels' shootaround on Friday. Guys having difficulty adjusting to the depth perception issues here. And it is a documented thing: cavernous NRG Stadium does have an effect on shooters. Syracuse is much more reliant on 3-pointers, though. The Orange scores 36.5 percent of its points on 3s. UNC scores 19.9 percent of its points on 3s. So, really, the NRG effect could help UNC, because it could limit Syracuse's success from the outside.
–The pace and tempo.
UNC likes to play fast. Syracuse likes a more slow-it-down, deliberate style. The two games in the regular season were among the fastest-paced games Syracuse played this season. And it lost them both. The target number, in terms of possesions, should be 70. If UNC gets there, the Tar Heels should win.
So there you have it. We'll see you at NRG …