(2) Villanova vs (2) Oklahoma
6:05 PM EST, TBS – Line: Villanova -2, Over/Under: 146.5
The first of Saturday’s pair of National Semifinals is arguably the more anticipated of the two, as a tandem of Two Seeds clash with the Villanova Wildcats emerging from the South Region to face the Oklahoma Sooners, who reigned supreme in the West. For Villanova (33-5, 16-2, 1st in Big East), the theme throughout this tournament has been exorcizing demons, or more specifically avoiding the premature exit that had plagued them so many times in the past; dating back to 2009, when they last advanced to the Final Four, Jay Wright and his charges had failed to make it out of the first Weekend of the NCAA Tournament, failing to do so as a One or Two Seed in each of the last three tournaments. It’s easy to see that the Wildcats have used that notion as ample motivation, for it would be hard to argue that any one team looked more focused on the task at hand than these kids through the first two weekends of the tourney. After surprisingly falling out of the Big East Tournament before the Championship Game, ‘Nova shifted gears and promptly swept through their first three contests of the NCAAs with ease, pasting Fifteen-Seeded North Carolina-Asheville (86-56), Seven-Seeded Iowa (87-68), and Three-Seeded Miami-Fla (92-69) in succession. The common thread in all three of those victories was outrageously efficient shooting, leading many to hearken back to that memorable Final in 1985 when they pulled the magical upset over heavily-favored Georgetown. Through their first three games of this tournament, Wright has seen his charges shoot 57.9%, 59.3%, and a startling 62.7% from the field, including 46.4%, 52.6%, and 66.7% from beyond the arc. In fact, the Hurricanes managed to crack their defensive pressure and put together a stellar shooting night themselves in the Sweet Sixteen (53.2% FG, 58.8% 3FG), but still ended up getting hammered by twenty-three points. And then came Kansas. The mighty, One-Seeded Jayhawks play rather stout defense themselves, so expecting another easy shooting night would be asking a bit much. No, folks, at the end of Saturday Night’s Regional Final, the Wildcats shot just 40.4% from the field, including a miserable 22.2% from downtown, yet managed to eliminate the Big XII Champions all the same. Simply put, this was the game where they couldn’t rely on their shooting, and instead had to roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work on the defensive end. Over the course of forty minutes, this Elite Eight matchup was a bonafide war. Two things stand out in the 64-59 Villanova victory. First, the Wildcats’ defensive pressure was relentless from the word go, as they relegated the Jayhawks to just 6-of-22 shooting from beyond the arc (27.3%), and only eleven assists, while forcing a staggering sixteen turnovers, eleven of which were steals. Freshman Guard Mikal Bridges earned five of those thefts, while leading scorer Josh Hart snared a pair himself, with the cumulative effect of those turnovers completely disrupting Bill Self’s offense form long stretches of the game. Secondly, they managed to play such overwhelming defense without putting their opponent on the Free-Throw Line. On the night, Kansas only attempted eleven free-throws, making seven (63.6%), while ‘Nova on the other hand, made them pay by netting all but one of their nineteen attempts (94.7%), parlaying to a commanding eleven-point advantage, which ultimately proved to be the difference. While many shined for the underdogs, Senior Center Daniel Ochefu deserves a wealth of credit, for not only his work offensively (10 points) and on the glass (8 rebounds), but primarily for neutralizing All-American Big Man Perry Ellis, holding the Senior to just four points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field (20.0%), five rebounds, and assist, and a steal, while turning him over four times. Now, with Oklahoma looming on the horizon, Wright and Co. must bring that same defensive intensity that toppled Kansas, lest the risk repeating arguably their most embarrassing defeat of the campaign. Back on December 7th, these teams met on a neutral court, and the Sooners absolutely eviscerated the Wildcats, outscoring them by seventeen points in the second half en route to a 78-55 blowout victory. Villanova was dreadful offensively, mustering a mere 31.7% shooting from the field, highlighted (or lowlighted) by an unmitigated disaster from downtown, where they shot a ridiculously terrible 4-of-32 from three. That’s 12.5%, folks, and that dog (or in this case, Wildcat) don’t hunt.
Meanwhile, albeit it wasn’t as dramatic, but Oklahoma (29-7, 12-6, 3rd in Big XII) has nonetheless advanced to their first Final Four since 2002, and anybody that has seen Big XII Player of the Year Buddy Hield play over these last five months, knows enough to take the Sooners seriously as a threat to cut down the nets come Monday Night. Surely, Villanova shares that sentiment, for when they last met, it was about as one-sided an affair as one could imagine. In that 78-55 rout, Lon Kruger’s charges bombed the hell out of the Wildcats’ defense, making fourteen of their twenty-six attempts from beyond the arc (53.8%), or in other words outscored their opposition by a whopping thirty points in that regard. The Senior Shooting Guard scored eighteen points, while draining 4-of-9 of his attempts from three (44.4%), but on the whole was held in check on 6-of-17 shooting overall (35.3%). However, as he drew the majority of the Wildcats’ attention, his teammates stood ready to exploit. Ironically, Hield wasn’t even the Sooners’ leading scorer that day, as fellow senior Guard Isaiah Cousins totaled nineteen points on 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), including 4-of-4 from three (100.0%), to go along with six rebounds, ten assists, and an assist. With that said, there is absolutely no question that Hield has been not only Oklahoma’s top performer thus far in the tournament, but arguably the top player OVERALL. Over the past two weeks, the sharpshooting sniper has averaged 29.3 points on 56.7% shooting from the field, including a staggering 47.5% from downtown, along with 6.5 rebounds per game. In what turned out to be their toughest matchup, an 85-81 victory over Ten-Seeded VCU, Hield carried his side to triumph, scoring thirty-six points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field (55.0%), including 6-of-14 from three (42.9%), coupled with seven rebounds. Three-Seeded Texas A&M proved to be a tougher task for him, even if Oklahoma won the Sweet Sixteen meeting quite comfortably, 77-63. Hield registered seventeen points on 6-of-13 shooting overall (46.2%), including a poor 2-of-7 from distance (28.6%). Fortunately, his teammates were there to pick up the slack, as Jordan Woodard caught fire from three (5-of-6, 83.3%), en route to a team-high twenty-two points, while Christian James scored all of his twelve points from the land of three, knocking down four of his six attempts (66.7%) off the Bench. Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup with One-Seeded Oregon was billed as an offensive bonanza, but only one team really came to play that night, and it was the Sooners. The 80-68 victory was really as close as the final score would indicate, as Kruger’s outfit umped out to a commanding 48-30 lead at Halftime. Hield, for his part, appeared otherworldly in shooting the rock, exploding for thirty-seven points on 13-of-20 shooting from the field (65.0%), including a blistering 8-of-13 from three (61.5%). Think about it for a minute, folks, Hield scored more than half of his opponent’s total. Of course, a lot of that can be attributed to his team’s play on the defensive end, which was in a word stifling; simply put, the Ducks couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean during the first half, and ended the night shooting a miserable 38.9% from the field, including 4-of-21 from beyond the arc (19.0%). In fact, the only reason the game was moderately close at the end, was due to Oregon erasing much of that eighteen-point Halftime deficit at the Charity Stripe, where they made 22-of-30 free-throws (73.3%), outscoring Oklahoma by eight points in that regard. Now looking ahead to the Final Four and the matchup with Villanova, keep an eye on just how quickly Kruger’s charges come out of the gate. In their earlier meeting in December, the Wildcats kept things close, trailing the Sooners by just six points at intermission. However, over their last three games, they have outscored the competition 137-87 over the first twenty minutes of play, or in other words they’ve outscored them by a staggering average of 16.7 points per First Half. Now we may be going out on a limb here, but our guess is that if Hield and Co. run roughshod over ‘Nova in the First Half, then they’ll probably be playing on Monday Night too.
(1) North Carolina vs (10) Syracuse
8:45 PM EST, TBS – Line: North Carolina -9, Over/Under: 146.5
Let’s play it again, guys!!! That should be the theme for the latter half of Saturday’s Final Four, as the One-Seeded North Carolina Tar Heels and the Ten-Seeded Syracuse Orange prepare to battle for the third time this season. Oh, that’s right, both teams inhabit the ACC, which has apparently taken residence in this year’s tourney, with four teams advancing to the Elite Eight alone, covering the entirety of the right side of the bracket, guaranteeing one of their number will indeed compete for a National Championship. And on a side note this has been a rather lucrative three weeks for the conference, who can earn up to $40 million in tournament revenue if one of these two teams prove victorious on Monday Night. The heavy favorite to do just that is North Carolina (32-6, 14-4, 1st in ACC), the last remaining One Seed standing, and if Roy Williams is completely honest with himself, he has to be thankful for the path that has been laid at his team’s feet. After Selection Sunday, that particular side of the bracket looked absolutely treacherous, with potential matchups with the likes of Four-Seeded Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen, Two-Seeded Xavier in the Elite Eight, and either One-Seeded Virginia or Two-Seeded Michigan State in the National Semifinal. Fast forward two weeks, and it turns out that Williams and his charges haven’t had to play any of those teams. In fact, the Tar Heels have yet to play a team seeded higher than Five on this run to their first Final Four since 2009. In the ultimate stroke of good fortune, Carolina has dismantled each of their previous four opponents, including Sixteen-Seeded Florida Gulf Coast (83-67), Nine-Seeded Providence (85-66), Five-Seeded Indiana (101-86), and most recently Six-Seeded Notre Dame (88-74) in the Elite Eight to reach this point. Seriously, folks, if this team does end up winning their third National Title since 2005, has there ever been a National Champion to have faced a less-arduous path? While some of you do your homework on that query, let’s take a look at the real reason that the Heels have advanced to this point, their three-point shooting. For the last three years, the prime weakness of this group has been their collective inability to utilize the Money Ball with any semblance of consistency; during the regular season, Carolina struggled on their way to 32.1% shooting from beyond the arc (290th Overall), including a dreadful 28.3% in conference play (15th in ACC). Furthermore, only two players on the roster have made more than thirty-two three-pointers (Joel Berry and Marcus Paige), and of the two, only one (Berry) shot better than 35.0% from distance, which is generally regarded as the minimum of a good long-range shooter. However, that’s all been thrown out of the window since the Tournament started, as they have netted 26-of-68 attempts for a vastly improved 38.2%. Paige, for his part, has been a revelation, recapturing the shooting stroke that made him a Preseason All-America before the season began. A litany of injuries crippled his Senior campaign from a statistical perspective, but Williams’ decision to employ both he and Berry on the court together, which has shifted him to playing off the ball more frequently, has allowed him the time and space to collect himself as a shooter. During the Regular Season, Paige shot just a meager 32.5% from downtown, but over the past four outings has caught fire, drilling thirteen of his twenty-seven attempts for a scorching 48.1%. Now, nobody is going to confuse this kid with Buddy Hield, but the fact cannot be denied is that he is fully healthy for the first time five months, and the spacing that he provides with his shot is only making Carolina’s stable of Bigs that much more dangerous. He’ll need to keep that stroke up against Syracuse’s vaunted Zone Defense, which can potentially collapse and neutralize the likes of Brice Johnson, who set an ACC Record Sunday Night with his twenty-third Double-Double of the season, compiling twenty-five points on 10-of-15 shooting (66.7%), and a dozen rebounds.
Meanwhile, with their miraculous 68-62 triumph over One-Seeded Virginia in the Elite Eight, Ten-Seeded Syracuse (23-13, 9-9, 9th in ACC) has now become just the fourth double-digit seed to advance to the Final Four, and the first Ten Seed to do so in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Of course, many are still stuck on the debate of whether or not the Orange should have even been in the tourney to begin with, for they were simply .500 in the ACC, which with the benefit of hindsight turned out to be a pretty damn good conference. Granted, for large stretches of the campaign, this clearly wasn’t a good basketball team, but there were factors that were working against them, such Jim Boeheim’s nine-game suspension for violations levied during the Summer. However, to their credit, the Hall of Fame Coach rallied the troops and made the most of a surprise Tournament Bid. Is this one of Boeheim’s better Syracuse teams? No. But have they proven capable of playing well enough to compete for a National Title? Absolutely. From a cynical perspective, the Orange have been the recipient of a fair amount of good fortune themselves, avoiding some of the tougher teams in the Midwest Region. After easily disposing of Seven-Seeded Dayton (70-51), the Orange took advantage of Michigan State’s face-plant against Middle Tennessee State, avoiding one of the heavy favorites of the tourney, instead hammering the Fifteen-Seeded Blue Raiders in a 75-50 rout. In the Sweet Sixteen they faced another double-digit opponent, outlasting Eleven-Seeded Gonzaga on the strength of a key Trevor Cooney steal in in the game’s waning seconds to secure a 63-60 victory. Then came One-Seeded Virginia, who had defeated them in their lone meeting during the Regular Season. After twenty minutes of play, it looked like history would indeed repeat itself, as Boeheim’s charges found themselves down in a fourteen-point hole at Halftime. Then something crazy happened. Boeheim employed his team to abandon their vaunted 2-3 Zone Defense in favor of a fierce Full Court Press that absolutely confounded the Cavaliers, turning the tide of the contest as the Orange put together an unbelievable 25-4 run. Outscoring Virginia 47-27 in the Second Half, Syracuse knocked off their fourth consecutive One Seed en route to advancing to their fifth Final Four under Boeheim. On the night, the Orange overcame shooting a terrible 36.8% from the field, including 6-of-18 from beyond the arc (33.3%), yet managed to get back in the game on the strength of their Press, their work on the Offensive Glass (plus-seven), and their ability to get to the Line (20-of-25), where they held a ten-point advantage. And to give you an idea on just how improbable that win really was, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett was 45-0 when his team led at Halftime. Indeed, the question of whether or not they belong in the Tournament has been rendered moot now. Apart from their surprising switch on defense, the emergence of Freshman Malachi Richardson over these past two weeks has been a significant component of their recent success. After dropping twenty-one points on Dayton in the Opening Round, the smooth 6-6 Shooting Guard came on late against Virginia, scoring the majority of his game-high twenty-three points in the Second Half, making eight of his nine free-throws, while accounting for eight rebounds and a pair of steals. He’ll need to show up against the Tar Heels, who bested the Orange in each of their previous two meetings in the Regular Season; in a pair of tightly-contested matchups, Williams and Co. proved victorious on both occasions, the former at the Carrier Dome (84-73) and the latter at Chapel Hill (75-70). In the first meeting back on December 9th, the two teams sat squarely at thirty-three points apiece at Halftime, with the visiting side outscoring the hosts 51-40 over the final twenty minutes of play. That night, the hosts couldn’t slow down Carolina’s Fast Break, yielding 52.5% shooting from the field and a staggering twenty-four assists. Things were tighter in the rematch, with featured Syracuse slowing the tempo to a crawl, as both teams shot well below 42.0%. However, the hosts were dominant on the glass, outrebounding the visiting side 38-30, with a whopping nineteen offensive rebounds allowing them to attempt sixteen more field goals despite the slower tempo.