By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
#2 Villanova vs. #2 Oklahoma, Saturday @ 6:09pm
What exactly is the encore for Villanova after knocking off the top team in the country? How about facing the top player in the country. Following the win over Kansas last weekend to reach their first Final Four since 2009, the Wildcats will look to reach the school’s first National Championship game since the miraculous 1985 run by overcoming not only another Big 12 foe in Oklahoma, but also a nationwide phenomenon: the Buddy Hield experience.
Back when Villanova and Oklahoma met in early December, Hield was projected as a second-round pick in the NBA draft. That day, the senior dropped a modest 18 points on 6-17 shooting from the field, albeit in a huge 78-55 Oklahoma win. Since then, the senior has exploded along a rapid upward trajectory as the nation’s second-leading scorer, averaging 25.4 ppg on 50.4% shooting from the field and 46.5% from three. Suddenly, he’s been in the National Player of the Year discussion for months and is projected as a lottery, if not top-5, pick in the draft.
As detailed recently on Nylon Calculus, Hield’s improvement this season has a lot to do with a dramatic improvement in his free throw rate (34.4% this year as of last week). In addition to driving and getting to the rim more frequently, Buddy has become more dangerous in the various different ways you can shoot the basketball. From spot-ups, to step-backs, to shots off the dribble, there’s no area where he hasn’t become an efficient scorer. That full arsenal has been on full display in the NCAA tournament, where Buddy has dropped point totals of 27, 36, 17, and 37, averaging over 4 made threes per game.
For Villanova, the defensive strategy employed will likely mimic that utilized against the Jayhawks. Josh Hart will start out on Hield, but the Wildcats will be switching between man-to-man and their 1-2-2 trap and match-up zones. Jay Wright will hope the interchange between defenses will once again cause confusion and create turnovers which lead to easy offense for the Cats. However, it will be crucial for Daniel Ochefu and whoever else is along the Villanova backline to call out where Hield is in those situations. If he gets free and finds a rhythm over a couple consecutive possessions, it could prove disastrous.
Of course, although the amount of media attention might indicate otherwise, the Sooners are more than just Buddy Hield. Even though Villanova has the rep as the team reliant on the long ball, Oklahoma has actually shot much better than the Wildcats from behind arc this season (42.8% compared to Villanova’s 35.4%). Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins have both hit over 42% of their triples this season; Cousins went 4-4 and finished with 19 points and 10 assists in the teams’ earlier meeting. Even 6’8″ big man Ryan Spangler, who leads the team by averaing 9.2 rebounds, knocks down more than one three per game at a 36.4% clip.
On the offensive end for Villanova, a lot has been made about how the Cats shot 4-32 from three against the Sooners in December. While Oklahoma has defended the three well this year (opponents have shot 33.1% against the Sooners), that number is obviously a huge outlier. However, one thing to watch in terms of shooting the ball for both teams is the NRG effect. Being a multi-purpose facility, NRG stadium has so much space behind the baskets that sight lines get thrown off for shooters. Ken Pomeroy detailed last year how three-point shooting is negatively affected to a statistically significant degree in games played in NRG. Whether that affects one or both teams Saturday will be something to keep an eye on.
Even after the earlier 23-point loss, and the amount of Buddy hype coming in, Villanova will enter this game as 2-point favorites in Vegas. They’re undoubtedly a deeper team than the Sooners and are almost certainly playing their best ball of the season. If they can keep track of Buddy and at least knock down their threes at an average rate, we should see the Cats again Monday night, possibly against tournament nemesis of years past, North Carolina.