Each weekday, our college hoops experts discuss the biggest issues, trends and themes in college basketball.
1. Which player will have the biggest impact on this Final Four?
Andy Katz: Brice Johnson. After watching him in Philadelphia, it's clear how difficult he is to defend. He gets his shot off at the top of his extension. Syracuse will have a hard time locating him since he can hit the turnaround jumper on the baseline and free throw line extended. North Carolina can protect him with the other bigs in Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson. Regardless of who wins the other game, Johnson will be a tough matchup.
Dana O'Neil: Michael Gbinije. The senior is the biggest cog on the biggest wild-card team in this Final Four, and if Syracuse is going to continue its stunning March march, it will be because of Gbinije. He won't leave the court unless absolutely necessary -- he's played all but six minutes in the Orange's four NCAA tournament games -- and he will dictate how things go for Syracuse. That will be especially true against North Carolina. It's no mere coincidence that, in the Orange's two losses to the Tar Heels, he was just 9-of-29 with 10 turnovers. His ability to shoot well and take care of the basketball against a team that desperately wants to capitalize on mistakes will determine Syracuse's fate.
Myron Medcalf: In the NCAA tournament, Buddy Hield is shooting 70 percent from inside the arc and 48 percent from the 3-point line. He's also averaging 29.2 points per game through four NCAA tournament games. No matter what happens Saturday (and perhaps Monday), Hield will be the headliner. In Anaheim, he scored 37 points against a variety of Oregon defensive schemes. If he demonstrates that flair in Houston, Oklahoma could win its first national championship. If Oklahoma fails to achieve that goal, Hield's contributions, or lack thereof, will be scrutinized. He's the greatest game-changer in the field.
2. Which coach has the toughest job ahead of him in the national semifinals? Why?
Katz: Jim Boeheim. North Carolina is the best team. But Boeheim is arguably one of the best coaches of all time. So if anyone can figure out how the Orange will deal with the onslaught of big men, it will be Boeheim.
O'Neil: Jay Wright. The challenge with Oklahoma is, do you let Hield beat you or do you let everyone else give it a shot? And does that ever actually work? Only one team actually has stopped Hield. West Virginia held him to six points in the Big 12 tournament, but Villanova can't reinvent itself as Press Virginia in a handful of days. So Wright will have to pick his poison. The fact that the Wildcats play a mix of defenses and are good defensively helps, but this is the hardest gig going in the Final Four.
Medcalf: Boeheim. It's not easy to beat a team three times in one season. But that doesn't mean anything for Syracuse in Saturday's national semifinal matchup against a North Carolina team that's won its four NCAA tournament games by an average margin of 16 points. In Syracuse's two losses to UNC this season, the Orange shot below 30 percent from the 3-point line and committed a total of 28 turnovers. North Carolina's Johnson is the perfect elixir for that 2-3 zone. He can pass out of the high post, hit shots over the zone or use his strength to get to the basket and create opportunities for others. North Carolina is a tough opponent for any squad in the field. Now, Boeheim must find a way to deliver a better game plan for a team that already has two wins against his squad.
3. Who (or what) is the X factor going into the weekend?
Katz: Isaiah Cousins. Hield will get his points and shots. But Cousins needs to produce to keep some of the pressure off him. Villanova will force the Sooners to put the ball on the floor. Oklahoma must have Cousins hold onto the ball to jump-start the offense.
O'Neil: The stadium. Look, usually I'm the first person to roll my eyes at questions about adjusting to shooting in a dome, but it could be a factor here. All four of these teams rely on their outside shooting, and with the weird sight lines, it very well could alter the outcome of a game. Plus, anyone who remembers the last time the Final Four was played in Houston -- UConn and Butler combined for 10-of-44 shooting from beyond the arc in a game that was hide-the-children ugly -- might be inclined to think there's a hex on the place.
Medcalf: Familiarity. You can't assume that we'll see the same results in rematches of North Carolina vs. Syracuse and Oklahoma vs. Villanova, but you can't ignore the previous results, either. Oklahoma did not just beat Nova in December -- the Sooners dominated the Wildcats in that 23-point victory. And Hield is even better than he was then. North Carolina and Syracuse have already faced off twice this season. At least in the OU-Nova matchup, you could make an argument that after four months, two different teams will meet Saturday. North Carolina and Syracuse played each other a month ago. Remember when North Carolina repeated its lopsided nonconference defeat of Michigan State in the national title game in 2009? We could see a repeat of that this weekend from the Tar Heels. Familiarity matters.