In Villanova's 64-59 win over Kansas in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats' stars made their presence felt throughout. Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu all scored in double figures. Yet, it was Mikal Bridges' defensive effort that put 'Nova fans into a state of jubilation.
If head coach Jay Wright's bunch has plans of reaching the national championship game, Bridges must bring a similar defensive intensity on Saturday against Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners in the Final Four.
Although Bridges is averaging 24 minutes per game in the tournament, without Jenkins' foul trouble versus Kansas, his impact might have never materialized. At the 13:37 mark of the second half, Jenkins tallied his fourth foul, forcing Wright to lean on his bench.
The 6-foot-7 swingman accepted the challenge, utilizing his size to bother Kansas' backcourt. Bridges helped force three turnovers over the final few minutes, but none proved to be as immense as the final one.
With just over six seconds left in the game and Kansas down by three points, Bridges forced Jayhawks' guard Frank Mason III to halt his dribble. Arcidiacono then swooped behind Mason and poked the ball out of his grasp, leading to Bridges alertly lunging onto it. Wildcats' freshman guard Jalen Brunson followed that up with two clutch free throws, sealing their trip to Houston.
Overall, Bridges was credited with five steals in 26 minutes of action. While he also posted six points and three rebounds, his physical presence on the defensive end dramatically affected the outcome.
Averaging a tick over one steal per game this season, Bridges validated his value on the big stage, as well as why he deserves extra time on the hardwood moving forward.
Looking ahead to Villanova's matchup in the next round, Bridges and his teammates will face off against Hield and the Sooners, who dominated Oregon in the Elite Eight. Hield, likely the winner of the Naismith Player of the Year award, sewed together a masterful performance, scoring 37 points on 13-of-20 from the field. He even shot 8-of-13 from behind the arc.
The senior averages 25 points per contest, and very few teams have displayed the ability to frustrate him offensively. Even though the Wildcats' chances of holding Hield to single figures are slim, Bridges could still limit his production.
Hield's colleagues execute their screens to perfection, giving the guard some space to operate with above the three-point line. Additionally, he has excelled at creating his own shot off the dribble.
Oklahoma's superstar stands at 6-foot-4 whereas Mason and teammate Devonte' Graham are 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-2, respectively. Hence, Hield's frame exceeds that of Bridges' defensive assignments from over the weekend. However, his combination of size and quickness allows him to clamp onto larger specimens.
Furthermore, Wright's trust in Villanova's budding guard has grown over the course of the season. The head coach entrusted Bridges with the task of defending Providence's Kris Dunn and Butler's Roosevelt Jones, two of the elite players in the Big East, during pivotal points in their matchups. Both players boast the same height as Hield.
Similar to those situations, Bridges can't sacrifice any space against Hield. Oregon struggled with this task, and Hield made the Ducks pay, proving that only a touch of breathing room was enough to drain a three-pointer.
Hield shoots 46.5 percent from downtown, a 10.6 percent increase from last season. Thus, he'll undoubtedly be the top three-point shooter to enter the NBA draft since Steph Curry. Ever heard of him?
Wright's unit defends the three-point line admirably, allowing their opponents to shoot 35 percent in the Big Dance. Against Kansas, excluding Graham's big night, going 5-of-9 from deep, the rest of the Jayhawks shot just 1-of-13.
Villanova possesses the pieces to succeed in a shootout if Hield explodes once again. Their chances of advancing to the title game would escalate, though, if Bridges showcases his grit versus the deadly machine.