It was on March 12th, just a few weeks ago, that Villanova lost a 2-point heartbreaker to the Pirates of Seton Hall in the championship game of the Big East. Since that loss, the Wildcats have been red hot. Winners of four straight NCAA tournament games, the Wildcats are coming off their biggest win of the year over the tournament’s number one overall seed, Kansas.
Now that game is in the past along with their other three tournament wins and Jay Wright’s team has another tough matchup with another team from the Big 12 conference. Enter Oklahoma. The Sooners have been near the top of the nation’s rankings all year and after four straight wins of their own, look to knock off the red hot Wildcats. This Lon Kruger coached team has four players who average double figures including potential lottery pick: Senior guard Buddy Hield. Hield, who averaged 25.4 points per game in the regular season, has shined when it matters most. That average has jumped to 29.2 in the tournament and he’ll look to continue his hot shooting when the Final Four tips off on Saturday.
A lot has changed since Oklahoma’s 23- point thumping of the Wildcats back in December. So as two of the hottest teams in college basketball are set to collide in Houston this weekend, we take a look at the keys for Villanova to pull off this win against the Sooners.
It’s pretty safe to say anyone who has watched college basketball at all this season has heard the name Buddy Hield. The 6’ 4” senior from the Bahamas is on a tear right now. He has won Big 12 player of the year in each of the past two seasons, First- team all America honors this season, and is most likely on his way to winning National player of the year. So the question is: Can he be stopped?
It won’t be easy, but Villanova coach Jay Wright is ready for the challenge. In their last game, the Wildcats held the Kansas Jayhawk’s best player, Perry Ellis, to just 4 points to go along with 4 turnovers. Ellis was frustrated the entire game with Nova’s quick and scrappy defense which forced 16 Jayhawk turnovers. That is exactly what they have to do to try and stop Buddy Hield. They need to get a lot of pressure on the defensive end and make him rush his shots. It is doable. A few weeks ago in the Big 12 tournament the West Virginia Mountaineers, a fast- paced defensive team like the Wildcats, held Buddy to just 6 points on 1-8 shooting. He was pressured from the start of the game and never was able to get in a rhythm. You can bet that Villanova will take a look at the tape of that game in the coming days (if they haven’t already).
Continuing Hot Shooting
One thing that can discourage a defense more than anything is when the other team shoots a high percentage from the field. In Villanova’s first three tournament games, they were shooting nearly 60%. They cooled off significantly against Kansas shooting just 40% and only 22% from 3. It could be a long day for the Wildcats if they shoot in that same range against the Sooners.
Oklahoma is averaging over 81 points per game this season so Nova is going to have to score at a fast clip to keep up. They were able to score at least 85 points in their first three games but when they faced a tough Kansas defense they were only able to hit 64. To be fair, the pace of that game was much slower and it quickly turned into a grind-it-out defensive game. The Wildcats were able to ice the game at the foul line thanks in large part to senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono who hit is final 6 free throws to lock down the win. But for Villanova to beat the Sooners, they’re going to have to go score for score with them.
One thing that almost every Big 12 team has been able to do all season is score at a high rate. This fast-paced style of basketball allows them to get up and down the court quickly and put up points fast. Oklahoma fits that bill to a tee. Some question whether or not Nova can keep up with the high- scoring Sooners.
The truth is, they don’t have to. Their defense was suffocating against Kansas as they held the number one seed to just 59 points in their Elite Eight victory. They forced the Jayhawks into an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers including 11 steals. Their defensive effort was led by freshman guard Mikal Bridges who came away with 5 steals of his own, none bigger than with 6 seconds left on the clock with the Cats up 3 points to lock up the win. A tall task awaits Villanova in Houston this Saturday, but if they can bring that same defensive effort like they did against Kansas, the Wildcats could be heading to Monday night’s finale.
Photo credit: Kevin C. Cox