In the 37 prior years that I have followed college basketball, either casually or in my time here on WordPress as your loyal, honest blogger who does like to have some fun (at least, when I am not busy cooking my favorite dishes in the winter–but that could be another blog subject for another day, you never know).
There have not been many years where each of the four surviving teams has every key ingredient necessary to cut down the nets inside the cavernous NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday night. Not since 1987, when two then up-and-coming programs from UNLV and Providence challenged the eventual final two in New Orleans being Indiana and Syracuse. Indiana was the clear favorite to win that year, but nothing came easy.
What I am trying to say is…this entire year I have heard the word parity thrown around almost as often as your favorite Playboy model of years past who continues to pose those frequent fabulous, non-nude pics of herself on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Every coach has been in at least one Final Four before (Lon Kruger did it in 1994 with Florida, while Jay Wright helped Villanova get there in 2009, Jim Boeheim will be making his fifth trip for the same team that he at one time over 50 years ago was a player for the Orange, and Roy Williams is marking his eighth overall appearance, four each while at Kansas along with his longstanding home of North Carolina).
Each team has a decent center, great guard play, and forwards that are not afraid to get dirty in the paint. In games like this, most often times it is the intangibles–the little things that should decide who will win during the semifinals. Points off turnovers and whichever bench can spell the starters, even from one TV time out to the next TV time out (a span of four plus minutes, just in case you are scoring at home) should prove to be more of a major benefit than an unnecessary burden on a team.
Here is what I think will be the keys for each school. I will begin with the teams that qualified on Saturday night in Anaheim and Louisville, then I will dish on the Easter Sunday winners representing the best deep dish pizza and cheesecake city of the world in Chicago and the land where people can recognize a great cheesesteak sandwich from an average one in Philadelphia.
OKLAHOMA SOONERS: 29-7 OVERALL RECORD, 12-6 IN BIG 12 CONFERENCE. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 30,824 (22,152 UNDERGRADS). FIFTH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
“The way people are guarding Buddy (Hield) and getting into him, it impacts everything. It helps create opportunities going at the goal and maybe when two guys are on him one guy might roll and we can get a lob. Or when he is in a position where he occupies his guy, Khadeem (Lattin) might be open at the rim or if Buddy stays in the corner it opens up driving lanes for Jordan or Isaiah. So how defenses cover Buddy e(a)ffects everyone. I thought Buddy’s game against (Texas) A&M, he showed great security. He occupied his defender, he rebounded, and he was the happiest guy in the arena to get his team involved and see our guys hit shots. He knows, as a team, we’re going to have to do that to win a couple games this weekend.”
Veteran head coach Lon Kruger speaking to Norman reporters at press conference Monday afternoon before departing for Houston
Rick Mount, Pistol “Pete” Maravich, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Mookie Blaylock, Dennis Scott, Bryce Drew, Gerry McNamara, Stephen Curry, Jimmer Fredette, Doug McDermott, and enter Buddy Hield.
His 25.4 points per game (increased to 29.3 during the four tournament games), to go along with 5.7 rebounds and 2 assists earned Buddy Hield the CBS Sports Player of the Year. If I had a vote and included this NCAA Tournament, there is no doubt he would be the runaway winner–although Denzel Valentine had a decent year for Michigan State (who ended up beating Hield for the Associated Press annual honor by only three votes), but the Spartans simply disappeared after the First Round.
The previous eleven names I mentioned above all had one thing in common during their college days–they knew how to fill up arenas almost every night and they consistently found ways to square up and hit the rock on an almost consistent basis. With Buddy Hield, all you have to do is stand up and just watch in awe. Each time he hits a shot from the outside, they usually find nothing but nylon.
“Buddy Hield reminds me a bit of Michael Redd (in terms of NBA playing ability). No question, he is a better shooter than Michael Redd.”
Stacey King, Oklahoma Class of 1988 and current CSN Chicago analyst on the “Carmen and Jurko” midday talk show Thursday morning heard on ESPN 1000 Chicago
Even when he gets inside the paint, often times he has been successful in finding his teammates like Josh Hart. But only His Airness won a championship, the others did not. No question, defense will be the Sooners main calling card against a gritty Villanova squad.
THE SOONERS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
Buddy Hield can get his teammates involved, especially Ryan Spangler. At times, he seems to feel like he is a decoy. However, he came up huge with key defensive stops against the vaunted Oregon guards at the Anaheim Regional final. If Hield ends up scoring 30 or more and his other teammates are not doing much in terms of movement without the ball, “Boomer Sooner” is in trouble faster than famous alum and former Fox Business reporter Shibani Joshi cranking out the latest technological gadgets that would make our lives better.
THE X-FACTORS TO WATCH FOR OKLAHOMA…
Dinjiyl Walker and Jordan Woodard. Both men are going to have play the game of their lives, especially on the defensive end against the very crafty Villanova backcourt.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
Besides Khadeem Lattin being the grandson of 1966 Texas Western (now Texas El Paso) starting center David Lattin, Oklahoma did beat Villnova on Pearl Harbor Day this past December 7 by a 78-55 score. Most of the country began to take some notice after claiming the Diamond Head Classic title beating the likes of Washington State, Hawai’i and Harvard to win the title on Christmas night. They have been at least a Top 8 team in the rankings during the entire season, appearing as Number 1 for three weeks during Weeks 11 through 13. But like Stacey King also mentioned during his weekly radio conversation on ESPN Chicago Thursday morning,
“You shouldn’t go in with the attitude of, ‘Hey, we’re in the Final Four.’ They have to go out there and find a way to win against a very good Villanova team. This is not the same team that they beat earlier in the season…Villanova and North Carolina come in hot.”
VILLANOVA WILDCATS: 33-5 OVERALL RECORD, 16-2 IN BIG EAST CONFERENCE. BIG EAST TOURNAMENT RUNNER-UP. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 10,482 (6,394 UNDERGRADS). FIFTH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
“I have a really strange feeling about the 1985 team. They’re so special around here and it was such a special run. This isn’t as magical and I kind of don’t want anything to take away from their magic, but I still want to win it really bad. I am kind of perplexed about that right now. Once we start playing games I will not be perplexed. I know what we want, but there’s something special about [the 1985] team.”
15 year veteran Head Coach Jay Wright when asked by various Philadelphia reporters on Monday in pre-Final Four press conference
The way Villanova shadows people, it is scary and fun to watch at the same time. Scary in the fact that it resembles 1985 all over again, but it is fun as well to see a rather interesting brand of hoops played by guys who get it.
THE WILDCATS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
Ryan Arcidiacono does his best Harold Jensen impersonation. Jensen, for those of you who were not around to see the first and only 8 seed to win a championship–he was one of the key guys that Monday night in Lexington when Villanova simply could not miss a shot. And that game was before the shot clock and before the three-point shot came into play. The key here is for their guards to hound Buddy Hield each time he touches the ball and force the other guys to beat them with contested shots, which was not the case the first time these two teams met on December 7 in Hawai’i.
THE X-FACTOR TO WATCH FOR VILLANOVA IS…
Mikal Bridges. The one-time redshirt is Jay Wright’s “stud” of a player. He rebounds, hits his free throws and stays with their star player and tries to make mincemeat out of their cool statistics. Defense and transition baskets will be huge in this game.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
Villanova only shot 4 of 32 from long distance in their first meeting. Coach Wright promises to be, “really confident and aggressive at the start.” But will that confidence lead to doubt by halftime–leading to rushed shots against that different shooting background domed stadiums present as a hurdle, even to the most consistent of shooters.
SYRACUSE ORANGE: 23-13 OVERALL RECORD, 9-9 IN ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE (FIRST EVER 10 SEED TO REACH THE FINAL FOUR AND ONLY THE FOURTH DOUBLE DIGIT SEED TO REACH THE FINAL FOUR SINCE 1986). STUDENT ENROLLMENT 21,267 (15,097 UNDERGRADS). SIXTH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
“It was 13 years ago (in 2003) when Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to its only national title under Jim Boeheim and while guys like Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson aren’t quite on Anthony’s level, they’re still pretty darn good for first-year players.”
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, talking about the impact this pair of freshmen that came up huge in Chicago over Gonzaga and Virginia to reach the Final Four
The Orange are only the second school after Connecticut to have both the men and the women appear in the Final Four during the same calendar year. As topsy-turvy a year it has been for the Orange and their most loyal of fans, they brushed away the similar criticism that the 2006 George Mason squad did after Selection Sunday en route to a Final Four berth at the old RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
THE ORANGE WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
Lydon’s defense and Richardson’s three point shooting tries to keep the North Carolina big men off balance. Easier said than done, but again–there is no Jerry Stackhouse or Antawn Jamison running up the court with the ball off the dribble.
THE X-FACTOR FOR THE ORANGE WILL BE…
Which team will Jim Boeheim bring out? Unlike his 1987 and 2003 teams, this group has been very difficult to figure out at times. This group will definitely earn the moniker of being the true version of “Jekyll and Hyde” in this 2016 Tournament. Everybody thought with his nine game suspension, it would have been easy for all the naysayers to yell NIT berth. But the Selection Committee must have seen something in those 5 losses at the start of the conference season that we as fans did not.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
69.4 percent, that is their free-throw percentage being the worst average of the four remaining teams. They also average only 70.1 points per game on offense, but they hope their defense will again be the major calling card with giving up only an average of 64.6 points per game (good enough for fourth in the always rough and tough ACC).
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS: 32-6 OVERALL RECORD, 14-4 IN ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE. ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONS. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 29,084 (18,415 UNDERGRADS). RECORD 19TH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
“I think because of my knees, and I’m walking slower, people are starting to wonder how close [I am to retirement]. But I’ve really never considered [retiring].
…I still love walking out on that court for practice. I love getting on that bus with my guys and listening to the junk they’re talking. I love [UNC sophomore] Theo Pinson getting up on one of those armored vehicles, pointing that machine gun at me this morning [during a tour of the yard], and screaming, ‘Get on the line!’ I love those kinds of things. I love the association with the guys.”
Longtime North Carolina Head Coach Roy Williams commenting in November 13, 2015 interview to Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com on not being able to sit for long periods of time. With a pending knee replacement surgery on the horizon for the summer, could this be his swan song after so many great years at Chapel Hill?
The only Number 1 seed to successfully reach Houston. At times, UNC did not act like a Number 1 seed–but yet again, their familiar formula of dominating teams like it was during the former Dean Smith era is creating another Carolina legend along Tobacco Road.
THE TAR HEELS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
Everyone plays well together and does not get too big headed about the whole Final Four experience.
THE X-FACTOR FOR THE TAR HEELS IS…
Brice Johnson. If it weren’t for Buddy Hield’s heroics, Johnson would have gotten more votes as Player of the Year. He broke Billy Cunningham’s long standing record for assists in a single game. But, if the offense can contain Syracuse’s pair of heralded freshmen, this game might be over in seven minutes.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
The Tar Heels average 83 points per game, which topped the ACC and was eighth in the nation. All they really need to do is stay within their game plan and execute the plays that make this team one of the most vaunted, yet highly respected schools in college basketball history. Four of their five championships occurred during the CBS era, and with TBS doing the final three games–will deja vu happen again like it’s 1982?
Well, no matter what channel or radio outlet you plan to tune in on Super Saturday, each team can present pound-for-pound quality talent on both sides of the court. Again, whichever team can execute in the half court defensively will emerge to Monday night. See you after the games late Saturday night or sometime on Sunday with a review of both national semifinal games.