The Villanova Wildcats (33-5) and Oklahoma Sooners (29-7) are set to square off in Houston on Saturday in the first of two Final Four matchups. The two opponents each took down their region’s No. 1 seed their last time out on the floor.
Villanova and Oklahoma are playing their best basketball of the season on both sides of the floor, particularly on the defensive end. Oklahoma sent the No. 3 and No. 1 seeds home by shutting down their perimeter shooting, holding Texas A&M and Oregon to a combined 10-for-49 from three (20.4 percent). Villanova stifled the South region’s No. 3 and No. 1 seeds with quick hands, causing Miami and Kansas to commit 28 turnovers combined (17 TO for Villanova in those games, +11 TO differential).
The Sooners and Wildcats are no stranger to Tournament play, but neither side has been this successful since the 2000s. Villanova last made the Final Four in 2009, falling to eventual national champion North Carolina. Will that be the motivation the Wildcats need to push past Oklahoma and possibly get a shot at revenge on the Tar Heels in the title game? (Syracuse will have something to say about that of course).
For Oklahoma it has been an even longer Final Four drought. The Sooners fell to the Indiana Hoosiers back in 2002. Fourteen years later there is a guarantee that one of these schools is headed back to the national championship game, something that neither team has accomplished since the late ‘80s.
These are two veteran groups with everything left to play for. College careers are coming to a close for the majority of Villanova and Oklahoma’s star players, now is their time to make history. Here are the key players and matchups to keep an eye on:
1. Buddy Hield
Did it come as a surprise to anyone that he would be the first name mentioned on this list? Didn’t think so. The Bahamian bucket machine has put on a clinic through the first two weekends of the Big Dance (29.2 ppg, 56.7 percent FG shooting, 47.5 percent on three-pointers). Even Kobe Bryant came out to see Hield on display, which the senior said inspired him to “put on a show.” He certainly delivered, connecting on eight threes and finishing with 37 points on Saturday to top No. 1 Oregon. Oklahoma will need more of the same from its star this weekend. Because when Hield’s shots are falling at that rate the Sooners are one of the hardest teams in the country to defend.
Another important aspect of Hield’s game is recognizing when to attack and when to distribute. He cannot do it all on his own, despite it seeming that way on occasion, so it is vital that his teammates get involved. If Hield’s shot runs cold for a stretch there must be a second and third option that can produce consistently. Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard will have to read the defense and capitalize on mismatches down low. If Oklahoma relies solely on jump shots Villanova will have a hand up to contest every time. The Sooners have to get to the paint and get fouls called on the Wildcats’ starters. All of this cannot happen if they sit around and enjoy the Buddy Hield show.
2. Post play
Both squads have a ton of talent and depth in the backcourt so we have a good idea of what to expect from their respective guards. The frontcourts are less predictable. Oklahoma does not get a ton of production from its big men, as starting forwards Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin are the Sooners’ fourth- and fifth-leading scorers. Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu has a size advantage over the smaller Oklahoma bigs and he needs to exploit this mismatch on offense. More importantly, however, he must limit Spangler and Lattin on the offensive glass, as rebounds and putbacks are a big part of their scoring. It is difficult enough controlling the Oklahoma backcourt for the duration of the shot clock, allowing the Sooners second-chance opportunities could be fatal.
If Ochefu and Villanova can limit the Sooners to one shot per possession it will completely change the outlook of this game. Second-chance points hurt you in a handful of ways. First and foremost, you give up a basket. But maybe more concerning is the wasted energy on defense and the inability to get out in the fast break. After playing well in the half court for a full shot clock, and forcing a poor look out of Oklahoma, there is nothing more emotionally draining then allowing that miss to turn into another shot attempt. Oklahoma won’t miss too many opportunities to score, so providing the Sooners with extra time is dangerous. Additionally, Villanova will have an easier time scoring if the Wildcats can get out and run off of a missed shot. If they allow the Oklahoma defense to get set they will have a harder time scoring with regularity.
Both of these programs’ success is predicated on building talent over the years, and 2016 is no different. Jay Wright’s Villanova squad has a few underclassmen that play significant minutes, but none exceed 24 per game. On the other side, Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad starts four upperclassmen and sophomore Lattin, but at 22 minutes a game he leads the next underclassman by close to 10 minutes. This is the Final Four, and nerves will be at an all-time high for both groups. There is a strong possibility of a starter on either side getting into foul trouble, suffering an injury, or just struggling with their game. The young talent on both teams must be ready to step up in place of the normal contributors when something inevitably goes wrong.
It is not necessary for an untested freshman to come into this game and take over, but mistakes will be even more costly than normal. Everyone must come ready to play and recognize that the spotlight has never been bigger. This is where heroes are born and errors are magnified.
4. Controlling the basketball
This is key for every team, especially in March, but Villanova must win the turnover battle in order to keep pace with Oklahoma. The Wildcats played brilliantly against Kansas’ three-headed monster backcourt of Devonte Graham, Frank Mason III, and Wayne Selden Jr., who combined for 10 turnovers in the South Region final. If Villanova can force Hield, Woodard and Cousins to cough it up at a similar rate it has a great chance against Oklahoma on Saturday. In contrast, the Sooner guards must be smart in handling the Wildcats’ pressure and establishing their half-court offense. If they can protect the rock and get at least a shot on most of their possessions Oklahoma should be able to pull away from Villanova.
There are many similarities between these two teams, so this bout may come down to the little things. When two highly competitive groups are pitted against each other and both come to play, the game is often determined by who dives on more loose balls and wins the hustle plays. Don’t be surprised if an incredible individual effort changes the outcome of this game in the closing minutes.
5. Josh Hart
Villanova’s answer for Hield comes in the form of its junior guard. Hart isn’t quite at the level that Hield is when it comes to pure scoring, but he is the best on the Wildcats’ roster at creating his own shot. There are guaranteed to be possessions where Oklahoma’s defense closes out well and Villanova’s efficient passing does not lead to an open look. In a pinch, with the shot clock dwindling, Hart will have to be able to make space for himself and knock down a few contested jumpers. If Hart can get hot he will force Oklahoma’s defenders to help on him, which will get his teammates open. Seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are quality scorers off of a good pass.
When you can get your best guy going it opens up shooting lanes for everyone else. It also tends to instill confidence in the other players. If Hart is feeling it then everyone else just plays a bit more loose and relaxed, the same can be said about Hield. Establishing a rhythm early on in this game could be huge for Villanova if it wants to control the tempo and dictate the pace throughout.
One more thing Villanova may benefit from is a bit of short-term memory loss. Wright and company have come a long way since the start of the season, but in a December Pearl Harbor Classic matchup these Wildcats were trounced by Oklahoma 78-55. The Sooners connected on 14 three-pointers, and they did not trail at any point during the game. Villanova will want to slow the pace down and keep Hield from getting hot at all costs.