By Anthony Rushing (Picture of Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono (15) looking to make a play in the Second Round in Brooklyn – @NovaMBB)
Villanova and Oklahoma are set to tip off in Houston on Saturday. The stage, for both teams, will be as big as it gets with a spot in the national title game on the line.
This year’s road to the Final Four, for Villanova, has been an extended exercise on changing the national perception of their program. The number two seed Wildcats — a number two seed in 2015 and a number one seed in 2016 — hadn’t reached the sweet 16 since 2009. Villanova securing one of the top seeds was close to being as sure a bet as it gets this season, but getting into the second weekend of the tournament wasn’t. Two weeks, and four wins later, Head Xoach Jay Wright has his team one step away from playing for a championship. Not bad for a team, despite all of its regular season success the past few seasons, which had been fighting off the stigma of underachievers.
Oklahoma’s run to the Final Four has been fueled by the exciting play of Buddy Hield. The senior sensation is coming off a 37-point performance in the Sooners Elite Eight win over number one seeded Oregon. Hield’s been the talk of the tournament and is arguably the marquee player to watch this weekend. The number-two seed Sooners are a well-rounded basketball team, and they’ve shown enough depth to conclude they don’t need Hield to shoulder all of the scoring load. Hield, however, is a scoring machine with the talent to put a team on his back; when he gets hot it’s must-see television.
Villanova’s stingy defense has been their main catalyst to success in this postseason – it’s the strength of their team. No opponent has reached 70 points against the Wildcats in this tournament, this includes the team they knocked off in the Elite Eight, number-one overall seed Kansas. Their defense will face their stiffest challenge to date in trying to shut down Hield.
When it comes to leadership, Villanova senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is as good as they come. Arcidiacono has been big-time for the Wildcats in the tournament, especially from behind the three-point line where he’s shooting a crazy 58 percent. If the game is coming down to the final minutes and it’s close, Villanova will make sure the ball is in the hands of Arcidiacono. The x-factor for the Wildcats could be the play of Kris Jenkins. The junior is playing at a high level and isn’t afraid of taking the big shot if called on.
Hield is the real deal for Oklahoma; however the Sooners bring much more to the show than just him. Seniors Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler, and junior Jordan Woodard bring additional firepower when opponents try to focus too much on shutting down Hield or if he’s having an off-shooting night.
Villanova doesn’t need to be reminded of Oklahoma’s scoring depth; they already found out the hard way. Earlier in the season, these two teams faced off at the Pearl Harbor Classic in Hawaii. Oklahoma came away with a 78-55 over the Wildcats. It was a game which saw the Sooners get 19 points from Cousins. Hield scored 18 points, but it was not one of his better overall performances. This game was by far Villanova’s worst showing this season and may have served as a key turning point towards getting them back on track.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger most likely will remind his team that they not only beat Villanova already this season, they dismantled them. Villanova’s versatility adds further intrigue to this game, as they can heat up on offense or make it an ugly game with their defense. Wright has done a tremendous coaching job in this tournament with in-game adjustments. He’ll have to have the Wildcats on guard for who’ll be the second option for Oklahoma after Hield.
These are two battle-tested teams with no Final Four experience but plenty of upperclassmen leadership. The big stage of the national semifinals will be sure to bring early-game butterflies but neither side will be intimidated.
Prediction time: Wright appears to have saved some of his best coaching for this tournament and Villanova has responded at the right time. Look for the Wildcats to pull out a close one over Hield and the Sooners to advance to the national title game.