The #2 seed in the Midwest Region, Villanova Wildcats (33-5) will meet the #2 seed in the West Region, Oklahoma Sooners in the first game of the Final Four in Houston. The Wildcats opened as 2-point favorites against the Sooners. The last time Villanova and Oklahoma met, the Sooners blew out the Wildcats 78-55 in Honolulu earlier this season. The Sooners hit 14 threes that game and were led by Isaiah Cousins, who had 19 points and 10 assists. Luckily for Villanova, that game was many months ago and is irrelevant to this game. Will Nova be able to get their revenge? Here is breakdown of this highly anticipated game. Both of these teams have been in the top tier of the rankings this entire winter.
Both teams have experienced lineups that have been in the big moment before. Since the start of the 2012-13 season, the Wildcats have won more games than any other team in college basketball. Despite that fact, the Wildcats came in with a chip on their shoulder as their critics have feasted on the fact that head coach Jay Wright’s experienced squad has failed to reach the second weekend of the Tournament since 2009.
With their play, the Wildcats have silenced all of their doubters. The Wildcats have been the most impressive team in the Big Dance thus far, blowing out their first three opponents (UNC Asheville, Iowa, and Miami). In the Elite Eight, Villanova beat the top overall seed in the Tournament, Kansas, 64-59 to reach their 5th Final Four in school history. Villanova’s win against Kansas displayed that the Wildcats can win in a multitude of ways. During their tourney run, the Wildcats have been led by their consistent veteran leader, Ryan Arcidiacono. The senior guard has scored 16 points per game while shooting 58% from 3-point range. The four year starter and captain has been one of the most underrated players throughout his career. The Philadelphia-born, life-long Villanova fan is a leader on both sides of the court and in the locker room.
Oklahoma has had a similar run to the Final Four. In their opening game, the Sooners struggled against an inferior Cal State Bakersfield team before pulling away late to win 82-68. They then had a nail-bitter against VCU, winning 85-81. In the Sweet Sixteen OU seemed to have found their groove, blowing out Texas A&M 77-63, and then followed that up by dominating #1 seed Oregon 80-68.
Oklahoma’s run has been highlighted by the play of this one guy named Buddy Hield. Hield is regarded as one of the best college players in the country and he has proven that in this Tournament. The native of Jamaica has scored 117 points so far in the Big Dance (good for a 29.3 per game average). That ranks second to that other guy, Steph Curry, for most points scored through the first four games of the Tournament. Hield has put up these numbers with efficiency, shooting 57% from the floor and 45% from 3-point range. The senior guard had a marquee performance in their Elite Eight win against Oregon, scoring 37 points while shooting 13-20 from the field and 8-13 from behind the arc.
Buddy Hield is capable of carrying this Sooner team to a Championship, but in Oklahoma’s case, he really doesn’t have to because his teammates are pretty damn good, too. In addition to Hield, Oklahoma’s core has been comprised of a star-studded cast in Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, and Ryan Spangler. When you add in sophomore center Khadeem Lattin, you have the best starting five in college basketball.
Hield leads the Sooners, scoring a nation’s second best 25.1 points per game while shooting an astounding 50% from the floor. In addition, Cousins, Woodard, and Spangler average double digits while shooting at least 40%. Cousins is the second scoring option for the Sooners, and has been rock-solid as the Sooners point guard. He can make plays passing or scoring. Spangler is a skilled shooting power forward who can stretch the floor to give open floor space for his teammates to make plays. The 6-8 senior is the best inside presence for the Sooners, and is a reason why Oklahoma secures 80% of their defensive rebounding opportunities. OU’s unsung hero is Jordan Woodard. The junior point guard is an aggressive do-it-all wing and has been notorious for making huge plays during this Tournament.
Oklahoma’s core quartet has been the centerpiece of the program for the last three years, starting 105 consecutive games together. This group is an offensive juggernaut, averaging 81 ppg, rank 31st in offensive efficiency, and 2nd in 3-point percentage at 41%. They put up these whopping numbers while playing in the Big 12, which is arguably the best conference in basketball this season. When all parts of Oklahoma’s offensive machine are moving cohesively, the Sooners are nearly impossible to stop. Just ask the Oregon Ducks.
Villanova hopes to counter Oklahoma’s offense with a stifling defense. They are surrendering just 63 points per game, are ranked 11th in defensive efficiency, and allow their opponents to shoot just 40.9% from the field. The Wildcats stingy defense is something that they really take pride in. They have lengthy, athletic guards that can challenge Oklahoma’s dynamic perimeter shooting. Coach Wright’s defense is permitted on communication, discipline, patience and hustle. Senior center Daniel Ochefu is the guy on the back end who has protects the rim and serves as the center point for communication. Arcidiacono is the middle man who prevents the outward penetration to the paint, while swingmen Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson collapse and force turnovers.
Known as a team that plays tight man-to-man defense, Coach Wright has implemented a compact, pack line zone defense. After beginning with growing pains, Villanova’s zone has been a cornerstone to their defensive scheme. It was a big reason why the Wildcats were able to stop Kansas, as the they basically shut down Perry Ellis and prevented Jayhawk guards Wayne Selden and Frank Mason III from driving to the basket. Ellis is not the only big-name college star who fell victim to the pack line defense. Iowa’s All-American forward, Jared Uthoff and Miami’s do-everything guard Angel Rodriguez struggled against that zone in previous rounds of the NCAA Tournament. However, stopping Buddy Hield and Oklahoma’s offense is simply a different animal. Ironically, Oklahoma is one of the few teams that had great success against Villanova. Back in December when they played out in Hawaii, they shot 14-26 in their win. It is hard to imagine Oklahoma shooting that way on Saturday with the way Villanova has been playing defense. With so many offensive weapons, the Wildcats will have to communicate very well, and always identify where Hield is at.
Like any game, the key to this matchup will be the turnover battle. Villanova is a disciplined team on offense and take care of the ball. Hart is defensive enforcer who is known for forcing turnovers. During the tournament, the Wildcats forced 44 turnovers, including 14 in their most recent win over Kansas. On the other hand, Oklahoma has shown some carelessness with the ball, averaging 10.5 turnovers throughout the tournament. In addition, Buddy Hield has had 5+ turnovers in his last two games.
Another area that will be key during this game is whether each team can stay out of foul trouble. If there is a main weakness in Villanova’s defense, it is that their big men, Kris Jenkins and Ochefu, are susceptible to foul trouble. Since the Wildcats have a significant advantage in the front court, it will be key for the Sooners to get either of them off the court. It will be tough, as Oklahoma does not have the means to exploit that. The Sooners are a jump shooting team and rarely use their frontcourt players in their offense. Hield, who primarily handles the ball on nearly 50% of the possessions, has only gone to the free throw line 9 times in the last two games. On the flip-side, it is important for star players Hield and Cousins to stay out of foul trouble. The Sooners have an amazing starting five, however they do not have a very good bench. Their production dwindles when they are not on the floor at the same time. All of Oklahoma’s losses have occurred when either Cousins or Hield got in foul trouble.
As strong as Villanova is on defense, they are very streaky on offense. Similar to Oklahoma, Villanova does not have a dominant post presence and relies on ball movement and making open shots. Villanova struggles mightily when their shooters go cold. Hart is the Wildcats leading scorer, and is Villanova’s only player who can consistently create his own shot. He’ll need to be aggressive by constantly driving to the basket against Oklahoma’s vulnerable interior defense. The matchup between guards Woodard and Hart will be a matchup to watch throughout the game. If Hart struggles to get it going, it will be paramount for Villanova’s shooters to make shots to stay in the game.
This should be one of the most entertaining games in recent Tournament history. Both teams have dynamic rosters and are playing their best basketball of the season. Both teams have great coaches roaming their sidelines, have been playing great basketball, and have dynamic players on both sides of the ball. Although there is no guarantee this going to be Final Four classic we are all hoping for, it is doubtful that either team is going to win by double digits. Villanova was simply blown out in Hawaii because Oklahoma knocked down their threes, and Villanova made none of theirs. Oklahoma has the elite physical talent and better shooters. However, Villanova is just a little bit deeper and their defensive discipline is going to help them get stops late in the game. Everyone is talking about Buddy Hield right now, but after this game I think people will be talking about Ryan Arcidiacono. Although I have Oklahoma making the championship in my broken bracket, I see Villanova moving on to the final game in Houston. Final score: Villanova 69 Oklahoma 65.