Something felt very familiar to me about this season for Villanova, but I couldn't put a finger on it until Saturday night. No, it wasn't that the 'Cats stepped up in a big way to beat the #1 overall seed in Kansas. It wasn't triggered because the Cats were going back to the Final Four just like they did in '09 either. No, this season seemed familiar before Villanova even took the court Saturday night. I got that feeling when I found out that their potential Final Four opponent would be the Oklahoma Sooners, a team that utterly humiliated them in Hawaii to the tune of 78-55 back in December.
But this familiar feeling isn't just because we've seen Oklahoma already this season, it's because Villanova is playing out the storyline of every feel good team sports movie I've ever seen. You know how it goes: First you put together the rag-tag group of kids that have the talent within them, but need the father-figure coach to get the most out of them.
Early in the season they play the biggest, baddest team in the land and get crushed. But they keep working hard, developing their talents, and find themselves in the hunt at the end of the season. And then, almost too predictably, that team that crushed them last time is standing in their path to a championship. Well, Big Bad Buddy Hield is back with his buddies, but this time the Wildcats are ready for them.
Let's start with what was easily the downfall of the 'Cats back on December 7th, the 3-pointer. Not only did Villanova shoot its second worst 3FG% of the season, they did it while taking their 5th most shots from deep all year. The result was a dreadful 4 of 32 from deep, but it didn't stop there. As if they wanted to rub it in, Oklahoma went 14 of 26 (53%), making shots from 30+ feet out like it was nothing. Most of the damage was done by Oklahoma's other guards as Buddy Hield finished with just 18 points on 6 of 17 shooting.
So flash forward 4 months to one of Jay's recent post-game press conferences. He's asked what the team saying "Shoot 'em up, Sleep in the streets" means. Jay goes on to describe that it's a shooter's mantra to keep shooting. Great shooters are confident enough to keep taking shots, even if you miss so badly that no one will let you stay in their house and you have to spend the night sleeping out in the gutter. Obviously he mentions the Oklahoma game as being proof that the team gets the concept. But from there, he explains, they start working on the players' intellect and shot selection. It's not just about having confidence to keep shooting, but keep taking the right shots.
And that's the key difference between the Villanova team that lost by 23 and the one the Sooners will see in Houston: Shot Selection. The Wildcats have become deadly efficient in the tournament, shooting over 46% from deep through 4 games and over 55% from the field. For comparison, the Sooners are connecting on 44% of their 3-pointers, but just 48.5% from the field. What does that mean? It means that Villanova is just as good, if not better, from deep as Oklahoma, and the numbers from December aren't indicative of what we should see Saturday.
I know this is going to be hard to believe, but Villanova didn't get completely dominated by Oklahoma back in Hawaii. In fact, the Cats seemed to have a major advantage that they just didn't take advantage of: points in the paint. Villanova went 16 of 31 for 51.6% shooting inside the arc in that first meeting, while Oklahoma shot just 14 of 34 for 41.2%. Sure, Oklahoma didn't mind the poor shooting inside because they were so hot from behind the arc, but Villanova did need their inside scoring and instead jacked up more 3's than 2's.
But that wasn't the only area the Wildcats out-performed the Sooners that day, they also beat them at the line. Villanova made as many free throws as Oklahoma attempted, going 11-16 (68%) to Oklahoma's 8-11 (72%). Josh Hart and Phil Booth were both especially effective at driving past their defenders and drawing fouls at the rim. The Cats also stayed out of foul trouble, with Jalen Brunson and Darryl Reynolds getting just 3 fouls to record the most for any player.
So let's jump forward Wayne's World style (didiloo-didiloo-didiloo) to the tournament and see if these advantages hold up. Not only is Villanova making over 60% of their 2's, but they've made more 2's (81) than they've attempted 3's (80). Oklahoma has improved their inside scoring too, up to 51% for the tournament. However, they're still relying on 3's, taking 95 3's to just 73 2's made. At the line, Nova has maintained it's advantage as well, going 56 of 66 for 84.8% in the tournament. Oklahoma has made it to the line more than the 'Cats, but have hit fewer, going 52 of 76 for 68.4%. This all boils down to the basic fact that Villanova has always had an advantage over the Sooners inside the arc, and that should be where they focus their attack.
Big Bad Buddy Hield
Even back in December, Buddy Hield was a front runner for the Player of the Year Award. Despite the fact that he was the best player on the court the last time these teams played, Villanova was able to keep him under 20 points, which has only happened 7 times in the 30 games since. The problem was that the Wildcats couldn't stop anyone else. Ryan Spangler, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, and Dinjiyl Walker all scored in double digits. All but Spangler hit multiple 3's, and Spangler went 3 of 4 from 2pt range. Basically, Buddy Hield didn't need to be Buddy Hield that night and the supporting cast proved they're more than capable of winning a game with their talent.
But like I said, that wasn't the last game Buddy Hield scored under 20. He recently had only 17 points in the Sooner's Sweet 16 victory of Texas A&M. In that game, similar to the win over Villanova, Oklahoma had 5 players in double figures. So you can't just shut down Buddy Hield, you have to shut down the whole team. The last time a team was able to accomplish that was all the way back in.... early March. West Virginia not only shut down Buddy Hield to the tune of 6 points, but they were able to force Oklahoma to the interior and contain them with pressure man defense. Now where have I seen that before....
I'm not saying Nova can just shut down Hield, at this point I don't think anyone can. But one player can't win the game by himself, and if Nova's pressure defense can cause enough problems for the rest of the team, it won't matter how many points Buddy can produce. If the Kansas game showed anything, it's that's Nova is playing the best defense it has all season, and they're going to have all the motivation in the world to shut down the Sooners.
And so as Saturday approaches, so does the end of this familiar Hollywood movie tale. Houston is the final scene, the villains are in place, and it's time for the good guys to step to the plate. Grab your popcorn Nova Nation, cause I think it's going to have an exciting ending.