With a trip to the national title game on the line, Villanova battles Oklahoma in the Final Four on Saturday night.
Continuing our conversations with fellow SB Nation blogs, Rich DeCray of Crimson And Cream Machine discussed what makes the Sooners a tough test for the winner of South Region.
BECB: Buddy Hield went off against Oregon, scoring 37 points and draining eight threes. How have you seen him take his game to the next level during the tournament?
Rich DeCray: It's crazy to witness a player continuously rise to the occasion like Hield has done all year long. As the stage continues to grow bigger and bigger, so do the individual performances from the senior. Part of the performances may have been sparked by a VCU defender, who simply stated, "You're supposed to be the player of the year" after Hield struggled in the first half. Since that moment, the guard has upped his level of play to embody the notion.
Needless to say, Hield has become a complete player with a quick release and the ability to finish at the rim. So how has he elevated his level of play you ask? Earlier on, Hield would involve others when failing to reach his numbers. However, during tournament-play, when one area of the game fails him, Hield finds another aspect to use to his advantage. Assume, the star of the Sooners' roster comes up short from behind the arc. Instead of becoming a high volume shooter in the tournament, Hield has attacked the rim earning easy points or trips to the free-throw line. Watching the ball fall through the net instills a certain level of confidence as the guard steps back out behind the three-point line. Knowing there's no lid on the basket, Hield falls back to shooting and draining shots with little to no space from range.
There is no denying this kid currently, and he'll find a way to score the ball.
BECB: The knock on Oklahoma is that the Sooners don't have enough size, but in the Elite Eight, head coach Lon Kruger's bunch outrebounded the Ducks, 38-32. Besides forward Ryan Spangler, who are the underrated rebounders on this team?
RDC: There's no doubt Spangler sets the tone in terms of physicality. But, it's easy to forget that Khadeem Lattin is only a sophomore and first-year starter with the talent that surrounds him. With his length and athleticism, the kid shines on the defensive side of the court while rebounding the basketball remains a team effort. Crashing the boards with regularity, the guard trio of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, and Jordan Woodard average 13.3 rebounds each outing. Yet, the most underrated of the group has to be Cousins.
It's not often you see a point guard pull down 4.6 rebounds per game. His knack for finding the ball and making things happen continues to be undervalued by the fan base as the focus remains on Hield. That's not to say Hield isn't worthy, but rather that Cousins' contributions shouldn't go unnoticed.
BECB: Hield obviously dominates the production from the backcourt, but Isaiah Cousins and James Woodard are also extremely valuable. What should Villanova be looking out for from those guards?
RDC: In the month of March, Oklahoma continues to knock down three-pointer after three-pointer thanks to the unselfish nature of these perimeter players. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Sooners dished out 23 assists against the Texas A&M Aggies and followed up the performance with another 16-assist outing in the Elite Eight against Oregon. Finding the open man, OU connected on 44 percent and 50 percent of their attempts from behind the three-point line in each of those games. When Oklahoma is at their best, the guards are moving the ball and knocking down open jump shots. Nova must find a way to slow them down if they hope to avoid the same fate as those mentioned above.
BECB: In early December, Oklahoma spanked 'Nova, 78-55. While this upcoming meeting most likely won't produce another blowout, what did you takeaway from that game, which could play a role in their Final Four matchup?
RDC: Back in December, fans witnessed a top ten matchup, touted as a potential Final Four pairing. However, while the two programs that met in Hawaii may bear the same names, drastic changes have occurred over the course of the season. There will be some familiarity with individual styles and team strengths/weaknesses, but the only thing Oklahoma can take from the early meeting is confidence.
BECB: Against Kansas in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats flipped back and forth between a man-to-man and zone defense, forcing 16 turnovers in the process. Mikal Bridges was a big part of that, slowing down the Jayhawks' backcourt and picking up five steals. How will the Sooners look to combat this strategy?
RDC: Facing a zone defense in the Big 12 has become a rare occasion. The Baylor Bears learned the hard way, dropping a rare home game after tallying up a 15-game win streak in front of a home crowd, playing a zone against Oklahoma. When stepping out on the court in the Final Four, the Sooners must once again rely on their experience to carry them regardless of the defensive scheme that they'll face. Experience breeds patience, and fans have yet to see OU in panic mode this season. But, the quartet of upperclassmen must combat the tactic by knocking down open shots when the opportunity arises. It's when the shots refuse to go down that Oklahoma finds themselves in trouble as they lack a dominant, inside scoring presence.
BECB: In the Elite Eight, 'Nova only made four threes, crushing the doubters, who thought head coach Jay Wright's group lived and died on the three-pointer. Getting the ball inside to forward Daniel Ochefu was a key, as he scored or assisted on six of their first 10 points. On the final stat line, Ochefu totaled 10 points and eight rebounds. How will the Sooners look to slow him down on both ends?
RDC: That's a tough question. If Ochefu gets things rolling offensively once again, expect the Sooner defense to double down early, like they did against the Aggies in the Sweet Sixteen. The move forced the ball back outside or produced a turnover while limiting the points in the paint. Yet, 'Nova remains patient and disciplined on both ends of the court. It's no secret that the Wildcats do not possess a glaring offense weak link. So, each defensive move must be calculated in terms of risk and reward.
At the other end of the court, Ryan Spangler has the ability to step out and knock down a three-pointer here and there. Stretching the floor, as well as pulling Ochefu into uncomfortable territory, could go a long way, assuming he switches off Khadeem Lattin every now and then. If OU cannot find the mismatch, then they must resort to other options. The most obvious presents itself in the lack of depth, specifically in the frontcourt for Villanova. Knowing the information, Oklahoma may choose to attack the big men. Woodard knows how to draw a foul and could put Ochefu on the bench with two early fouls. Without the 6-foot-11 player on the floor, 'Nova would be forced to play smaller with the likes of Mikal Bridges or Kris Jenkins, tilting the odds into the Sooners' favor.
Thanks to Rich for helping us take a look at Oklahoma. Crimson And Cream Machine's website can be found HERE.