Rob Dauster

Villanova guard Josh Hart (3) moves between Oklahoma's Cousins (11) and Buddy Hield (24) during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Villanova eviscerates Oklahoma, advances to the title game with 44-point win

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HOUSTON — It started exactly the way you would have expected it to.

It started with Buddy Hield, by far the biggest attraction in a Final Four that isn’t exactly brimming with star power, doing exactly the thing that Villanova had spent the last five days telling their guys not to let him do.

It started with Hield isolated top of the key. It started with two hard dribbles to his left. It started with a step-back jumper, a rhythm three, a bucket and a 3-0 lead for the Sooners.

“I could have killed Ryan,” Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard said, chuckling, of star guard Ryan Arcidiacono. “When you get out there in the game you’ve got to get a feel for him. He adjusted. All our guys adjusted.”

That would be the last time that Hield, one of just four players in the last 40 years to enter the Final Four averaging more than 25 points, would look comfortable on the NRG Stadium court, as Villanova put on the single-most dominating Final Four performance in the history of the sport.

They won 95-51, the 44-point margin the largest in the history of the Final Four. Those 95 points are the most anyone’s scored in the Final Four in 13 years. They shot 71.4 percent from the floor, as Villanova became just the second team in Final Four history to shoot better than 70 percent from the floor, although their 35-for-49 performance paled in comparison to the 22-for-28 shooting (78.6%) that the 1985 iteration of the Wildcats posted in their title game win over Georgetown. As a team, Villanova shot 11-for-18 from three. They scored 1.484 points-per-possession. Oklahoma’s last lead was at 17-16. Villanova went on a 12-0 run then, pushed their lead to 16 points in the first half and, after Oklahoma got to within 54-41 early in the second half, used a 25-0 run to push their lead to 38 points. In total, the Sooners were outscored 68-27 over a 26-minute stretch.

Man, what?

Is this real life?

A performance like that is impressive when the top teams in the country are squaring off with their buy game opponents. In a game like this? In the Final Four? Against a top ten team that rosters the nation’s best scorer? That’s quite literally never happened before, and it very well may never happen again.

It was the totality of the beatdown that was striking, and not just because it was the exact opposite of what happened in Hawai’i back in December, when Oklahoma beat the Wildcats by 23 points.

Villanova ripped Oklahoma’s soul out of their chest, chewed it up and spit it out in a bag that they put on Old Man Clemons porch and lit on fire. They broke Oklahoma. The Sooners were done midway through the second half.

“With 12 minutes left, Coach told us to quit looking at the score and keep playing,” Oklahoma’s Ryan Spangler said. “That’s not a good sign right there.”

I’m sure someone is going to criticize Oklahoma for that, but can you really blame them? It was quite evident at that point that Villanova wasn’t going to be blowing that lead. Hield, Spangler, Isaiah Cousins. Those three guys are seniors. They knew their career was over, that this was the last time that they’d be playing with this group of guys, that their final college basketball memory would be playing out the clock of a humiliating mollywhopping in what may be the biggest game that they’ll ever play in.

You can only fight but so hard for a lost cause.

“I feel bad for Oklahoma,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve all had those nights.”

Josh Hart led six players in double-figures for the Wildcats, finishing with 23 points, eight boards and four assists. He was 10-for-12 from the floor and had a series of back-breaking buckets early in the second half that helped to put the game away. Kris Jenkins chipped in with 18 points while Ryan Arcidiacono added 15 points and three assists.

The most impressive part of the win, however, was the work that Villanova did against Hield. He finished the night shooting 4-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-8 from three, scoring nine points. Before the first TV timeout, four different Villanova defenders had been matched up with Hield. By the 13-minute mark, Kris Jenkins and Phil Booth had gotten their shot as well.

Villanova was constantly changing looks defensively, and not just with the guys they had guarding Hield. Villanova cycled through all of their different defensive looks at least twice in the first half, using everything from a 2-3 matchup zone and a 1-2-2 zone press to a switching man-to-man and a straight man-to-man with a guard denying Hield the ball.

“Just credit to them, what they was doing,” Hield said. “Made it tough on me. Throwing a bunch of bodies at me. Just couldn’t get it going.”

It wasn’t all on Hield, either. Combined, Hield, Cousins and Jordan Woodard scored 36 points — fewer than Hield had on his own in the Elite 8 — on 10-for-36 shooting while hitting just 5-for-22 from three. Villanova’s team defense was just too much for the Sooners guards to handle. Cousins couldn’t get any penetration, Woodard didn’t get any clean looks outside of a four-minute stretch early in the second half.

We’ve said it all season long: Oklahoma doesn’t have a way to win games when their guards aren’t hitting shots, and while the severity of the loss is striking, the fact that it played out the way that it did shouldn’t be overly surprising.

“They just dictated on both ends of the floor,” Lon Kruger said. ‘They were great. We didn’t respond very well to it.”

“We got whipped in every way.”

Final Four Preview: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 Syracuse

North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) reacts after a basket in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. North Carolina won, 75-70. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
(Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)
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WHEN: Saturday, April 2nd, 8:49 p.m. ET

MAJOR STORYLINES: So I don’t know if you’ve heard about this or not, but apparently both Syracuse and North Carolina are dealing with these NCAA investigations. Have you heard any mention of that at all? Has that been a ‘thing’?

The bigger story here — beyond the crazy things that wacky old Jim Boeheim likes to say at press conferences when he’s long past caring about what the media thinks — is whether or not this is the last time that we are going to see Roy Williams on a college basketball court. I’m not predicting that to be the case, but let me paint you a picture: He’s got vertigo, he’s got bad knees, he’s 64 years old and he’s coaching a program that will be down for a couple of years as the NCAA investigation into the academic scandal at UNC the last four years as crippled his recruiting. This may be the last time for a long time that the Tar Heels are good enough to win a national title. If they do win, would Ol’ Roy ride off into the sunset?

KEY MATCHUP: Those front courts. North Carolina’s is really, really good. Syracuse’s is … well, they’re not. These are the two stats that you need to know: North Carolina was the third-best offensive rebounding team in the country this season. There were only 14 teams in all of college basketball that were worse at getting defensive rebounds than Syracuse. How will that matchup play out?

X-FACTOR: Marcus Paige will be the difference maker here. The way that Syracuse was able to keep it close against North Carolina at the Dean Dome last month was that they packed their zone in tight and dared the Tar Heels to beat them over the top. If Paige — and, to a lesser extent, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson — finds a way to knock down those threes the way he has in recent weeks, then the Tar Heels might be able to run away with this thing.

POINT SPREAD: North Carolina -9.5

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Brice Johnson had a career-high eight assists against Syracuse in the first meeting between these two teams, as he made a living getting the ball at the free throw line and finding Isaiah Hicks in front of the rim. The Orange had no answer. The way to beat this zone is to get the ball to the high post or the short corner, and Johnson is going to be the key there.
  2. How does Michael Gbinije perform in ball-screen actions against the Tar Heels? The Orange use a higher percentage of ball-screens than 90 percent of college basketball teams, and the Tar Heels are not great at defending them. Kennedy Meeks is not exactly fleet-of-foot while Brice Johnson struggles with lateral quickness. This becomes especially dangerous if …
  3. … Tyler Lydon and Malachi Richardson are hitting shots. Those two are the x-factors guys on this Syracuse team. Richardson is streaky, but when he’s cooking he can takeover a game. He did it against Virginia and sparked that 15-point comeback. Lydon’s ability to stretch the floor as Syracuse’s best shot blocker makes him dangerous and creates space for Gbinije in the paint.

CBT PREDICTION: Carolina wins. Carolina covers. Carolina gets 25 offensive rebounds.

Final Four Preview: No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova

Buddy Hield, Jalen Brunson
(AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
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WHEN: Saturday April 2nd, 6:09 p.m. E.T.

MAJOR STORYLINES: Both Lon Kruger and Jay Wright are two of the most underrated coaches in all of college basketball. Both are on track for what may potentially be a Hall of Fame career, but that’s not the only thing that they have in common: This is the furthest that either of them has ever advanced in the NCAA tournament, and both of them have only been to a single Final Four before this season. In other words, their Final Four résumé kind of hinges on how they end up performing in this weekend. Only one of them will be able to leave town while being able to say that they have played for a national title.

The storyline that is going to matter during the game itself will be the ability of these two teams to hit threes. We’ve been over this time and again — Oklahoma and Villanova both shoot more than 40 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the three-point line — and NRG Stadium is notorious for being a building where three-point shooting goes to die. Villanova has proven that they can win games when they aren’t shooting the ball well. Can Oklahoma?

KEY MATCHUP: Who is guarding Buddy Hield. Do I really need to explain this one? I don’t think I do, mostly because I already spent 1,500 words breaking down how Hield gets guarded.

X-FACTOR: The play of Kris Jenkins, Villanova’s stretch four. Jenkins is one of the most unique players in the country. He’s undersized and less athletic than just about anyone he will square off with at the power forward spot, but he’s been arguably Villanova’s best offensive weapon over the course of the last six weeks. He’s very difficult for opposing fours to cover. Can Ryan Spangler stay with him?

POINT SPREAD: Villanova -2

THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. When does Buddy Hield go crazy? Because it’s going to happen at some point. As Ryan Spangler told me, “Every game I know something crazy’s coming. I just wait for it.” When does it happen and how long does it last?
  2. Villanova’s real advantage is going to be at the forward spots. Oklahoma doesn’t really have anyone that is a good matchup for either Kris Jenkins or Josh Hart. If it is Hield who is matched up with Hart, the dirty little secret in Norman is that Buddy doesn’t love playing defense, and Hart is a guy who will take advantage of that. One other note on this: Oklahoma loves to play a switching man-to-man defense, so worrying about matchups may end up being a moot point.
  3. How well will Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins play? Because those are the two dudes that can actually make Villanova play for selling out defensively on Hield. Both are good enough that, when they’re playing and shooting well, they can win a game by themselves.

CBT PREDICTION: Villanova gets the job done, but it will be close. I smell a final possession game.

NCAA calls Zags coach to admit officiating error

Mark Few
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
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HOUSTON (AP) For Gonzaga, the timing could not have been worse.

Coach Mark Few told The Associated Press the NCAA called to inform him officials blew the call on a 10-second violation that went against the Bulldogs late in Syracuse’s come-from-behind win in the Sweet 16.

The turnover came with 1:17 left and Gonzaga leading 60-59. Josh Perkins skipped a pass for Kyle Dranginis into the front court, and Syracuse’s Trevor Cooney deflected it back across the line, where Dranginis grabbed it again.

Refs called a 10-second violation but the 10-second limit in the backcourt should have reset once a player touched the ball in the front court.

Here’s video of the play:

Syracuse scored the last four points as part of a 15-3 run to end the game for a 63-60 win. The Orange went on to another come-from-behind victory, two days later against Virginia, and is in the Final Four with a semifinal against North Carolina set for Saturday.

The NCAA declined comment.

In Houston for a national coaching convention that coincides with the Final Four, Few told AP it was “big” of the NCAA to admit the mistake, though he wonders how the game might have played out had the call not gone against the Zags.

Syracuse did not score on the possession after the turnover, but ended up with the go-ahead basket with 22 seconds left, then two free throws after Gonzaga came up empty on its next possession.

“If you score there, you’re up by (three or) four, and if they subsequently go down and miss, they’d have fouled,” Few said.

The coach said there were no hard feelings. He heard the grumbling about Gonzaga’s five turnovers over the last 6 minutes of the game; in reality, the Zags only should’ve been charged with four.

“It shows you, there’s so much luck and stuff involved,” Few said. “There are all these factors, and people want to dive into this or that. But really, it’s just an unfortunate deal. … But I think it’s probably good in our sport to say, `Hey, we screwed up.’ I didn’t make all the perfect calls in that game, either.”

How is Villanova going to try and stop Buddy Hield? Not easily.

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HOUSTON — It got lost in the insanity that was the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but Buddy Hield’s performance in the second round against VCU was as impressive as any performance that I can remember seeing in a game during the Big Dance.

Hield entered halftime with just seven points. With 15 minutes left in the game, he had just 10 points. He finished with 36, scoring 26 of Oklahoma’s final 31 points to hold off a wild VCU run that saw the Rams erase a 13-point second-half lead.

“In the beginning of the game, [we] did a good job arriving on the catch, forcing him to take some tough ones,” VCU’s Melvin Johnson said. “Second half they did the exact same thing, but instead the ball went in.”

In other words, VCU executed their game-plan, it worked for about 25 minutes before Hield went crazy. It’s not usually quite that obvious, but is a pretty good summation of Hield’s season. “Every game I know something crazy’s coming,” Ryan Spangler said. “I just wait for it.”

And therein lies the conundrum when it comes to designing a way to “stop” Buddy Hield.

Because, in the immortal words of Dan Patrick, “You cannot stop him. You can only hope to contain him.”

The most important thing to do if you hope to contain Hield is to accept the fact that Buddy’s going to get his.

We all know it’s true.

You don’t average 25.4 points with shooting splits of 50.4/46.5/88.0 without being able to do things even if an opponent is trying to take them away. And remaining focused and disciplined and locked in defensively even when Hield does the kind of things that can dishearten a defender may be the most important part of slowing him down.

“The biggest key to stopping him is not getting discouraged when he makes difficult shots,” said Ashley Howard, the Villanova assistant coach tasked with scouting these Sooners. “He’s an NBA player. He shoots with NBA range. So you can’t get affected when he makes difficult shots. Keep playing him hard, make all of his shots contested.”

Hield’s best skill on the offensive end of the floor may be his ability to move without the ball. Whether he’s sprinting to the three-point line in transition, drifting to the corner when one of Oklahoma’s guards drives baseline, running off of pin-down screens, moving into space when Oklahoma’s big guys come down with defensive rebounds, whatever.

He has a knack for finding a way to get into a pocket of space on the three-point line, and keeping him from getting clean looks at catch-and-shoot threes is the best way to keep him out of a rhythm.

“They do a really good job of hunting him and finding him,” said VCU head coach Will Wade. “When Spangler and Lattin get those offensive rebounds, they kick it out to the three-point line. They don’t go back up with them all the time. Easy threes. Which is tough.”

“They’ll give up layups to shoot threes. As a team, they get so much confidence from his three-point shots, the more you can eliminate the three the better chance you have.”

If you’re discouraged because Hield hit a challenged 27-footer off the dribble to beat the shot clock and it means you’re a second slow finding him in transition, you’re done. Suddenly, he’s hit three straight threes and you have to find a way to come back against an Oklahoma team that’s now brimming with confidence and holding on to the lead.

So you always need to be aware of where Hield is on the floor at all times.

The question that is up for debate is how to do that. What Texas A&M tried in the Sweet 16 was to use one of their best defenders, Alex Caruso, to deny Hield touches as soon as he stepped over half court. And that worked, to a point. Hield finished with just 17 points as Caruso did a great job of making it difficult for Hield to get the ball where he wanted it.

“He took advantage a couple of times and got layups and back cuts against us,” Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said, “but we didn’t want to let him catch it and start dribbling left and get into rhythm because he shoots a high percentage of three doing that.”

The problem?

It’s selling out to stop one guy, which would work if Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins weren’t so good.

“Woodard is a good guard, Cousins is a good guard,” Wade said. “They’ve got other guys that can beat you.”

What happens is that hugging up to Hield creates all kinds of driving lanes and space for Cousins and Woodard to attack. It makes defensive rotations that much more difficult to complete, which allows some of those other three-point shooters on the Sooner roster to get clean looks at the rim.

“Our guards had a hard time. We didn’t match up well with [Cousins and Woodard], but we didn’t anticipate not being able to guard Jordan Woodard like we did,” Kennedy said.

It’s a risk that Kennedy was willing to take because of how good Hield has become with the ball in his hands.

“He can shoot as soon as he gets off of the bus,” Howard said. “It’s a different type of gameplan. Because this guy, he has great range and plays within himself. He’s not going to just jack up threes for the sake of getting shots up. You’ve got to play him intelligently.”

“He loves to drive it left and shoot the little step back, so any time you can force him right into anything that’s not a layup you’re going to win that possession more likely than not,” said Wade. “Anything going left, catch-and-shoot, assisted three, you’re going to lose. So you’ve got to walk a thin line forcing him or influencing him right without giving him the basket.”

“And he plays hard,” Howard added. “Everyone talks about how well he can shoot. He plays the entire game at 100%. He sprints the floor in transition. He sprints in cuts. He runs at the offensive glass.

“After the game I questioned our philosophy on taking him away,” Kennedy said, “but then I saw him get 37 against Oregon and I would do it again. I’ll take our chances.”

Oregon, like VCU, defended Hield with more of a team approach. They didn’t drastically change what they do defensively to accommodate for Hield. Oregon still cycled through their changing defenses — switching man-to-man, matchup zones, etc. — and VCU ran their Half Court Havoc. They paid more attention to the NCAA Tournament’s leading scorer, yes, but having 10 eyes on Hield in transition and going box-and-one are two vastly different things.

“We tried to let them get into their offense,” Wade said. “Then, when he didn’t have the ball, try to deny him everywhere and make it really hard for him to catch it and make those other guys try to beat you.”

And that worked for a stretch for the Rams, as they were able to hold Hield to 10 points through the first 25 minutes of the game. And even when Hield went off in the final 15 minutes, VCU was still able to play their way back into the game and, eventually, take the lead on a number of occasions.

They lost to the No. 2 seed by four points. You can make the argument that their game-plan worked, and it’s a game-plan that will be similar to what you should expect to see out of Villanova on Saturday night. The Wildcats are not going to change what they do defensively. They’re still going to mix up their defenses, you’re still going to see a 1-2-2 press, a matchup zone and multiple different man-to-man looks throughout the evening. You’re going to see different players guarding Hield throughout the night. He’s going to have to beat different defenses on a possession by possession basis.

“We do everything as a team. Transition defense, anybody can be matched up on him. So everybody has to focus and concentrate on our game plan to guard,” Howard said. “We’re in the Final Four. You don’t want to go into a game like that and just completely get away form doing what you do as a team. Then guys aren’t as aggressive and guys are confused.”

Because getting confused when you’re supposed to be locating Buddy Hield is the easiest way to take a loss.

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) goes up for a basket against VCU in the second half during a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Oklahoma City, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Oklahoma won 85-81. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Spike Albrecht’s transfer restrictions removed by Michigan

Spike Albrecht
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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That ended quickly.

A day after Michigan was run through the media ringer for the way they were treating graduate transfer Spike Albrecht, head coach John Beilein back-tracked. A quick refresher — Albrecht has spent four seasons at Michigan, graduating with a year of eligibility remaining because he did not play this season due to a recurring and degenerative hip issue.

He does not have a scholarship available to him at Michigan next season. The spot’s been filled, and when Albrecht announced that he wanted to leave as a graduate transfer, Beilein put into place restrictions that banned him from going to any school in the Big Ten.

That set off a firestorm.

The kid graduated, he doesn’t have a scholarship available to him at Michigan and the Wolverines had the gall to block him from going to another Big Ten school? Beilein’s rationale is understandable. He doesn’t want a kid he groomed for four years to transfer to an intra-conference rival. Max Bielfieldt did that last season and he eventually helped Indiana beat Michigan in the regular season and win the conference title. I get it. But it’s also flat out wrong.

And on Friday, Michigan announced that Spike, and fellow transfer Ricky Doyle, would not be restricted anywhere.

“After initially granting a transfer release for Ricky (Doyle) and a fifth-year graduate transfer for Spike (Albrecht) consistent with the established norms regarding intraconference transfers, I am now removing all restrictions regarding their recruitment by other universities,” Beilein said. “While I have concerns about the current transfer policies as well as potential effects to the landscape of collegiate athletics, we should do what is right for Ricky and Spike as they decide to further their education and basketball careers elsewhere.”

The lesson to be learned here?

Anytime transfer restrictions are put into place, coaches are going to be crushed. Don’t even bother putting them in in the first place unless it’s worth the wave of negative publicity.