Final Four Previews: The x-factors in play on Saturday

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We kicked off our Final Four previews this morning with a look at the six story lines that are going to be beaten to death by the time the first Final Four game is tipped off. We’ll continue today with a look at the x-factors, key players and key matchups for Saturday night:

So can people shoot in NRG Stadium or nah?: Prior to this season, only once in the last decade had a team reached the Final Four while shooting more than 40 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. This season, Oklahoma, Villanova and Syracuse all fire away from three at that rate. That’s entertaining to watch … when the shots are going down, and if there is any narrative that we all remember, it’s that the dome in Houston — formerly Reliant, now NRG — has not exactly been the friendly confines for jump shooters. As Ken Pomeroy explains here, in the 15 games played in this building since 2002, the teams have shot a combined 32.2 percent from three, a number that would rank 277th in Division I this season and which is, as Ken says, “only slightly easier to make three-point shots at NRG Stadium than it is on an aircraft carrier.”

Tar Heel fans are celebrating: They shoot just 26.8 percent of their field goals from three and score only 19.9 percent of their points on threes, which is the seventh-lowest total in all of college basketball. That could be bad news for Oklahoma (40.6% and 38.9%), Villanova (43.1% and 33.4%) and Syracuse (42.2% and 36.5%).

Tyler Lydon’s rebounding: The lineup where Syracuse is the most dangerous comes when they play Tyler Lydon at the five surrounded by Tyler Roberson, Malachi Richardson, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney. That puts four shooters on the floor surrounding one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. That’s really hard to guard, and for what is the worst offensive team left in the tournament, having as many offensive weapons on the floor at the same time matters.

The flip side, however, is that lineup makes the Orange incredibly susceptible to getting obliterated on the offensive glass. As it stands, there were just 14 teams in all of college basketball that allowed opponents a higher offensive rebounding percentage throughout the season, and DaJuan Coleman — the team’s best defensive rebounder — will not be on the floor when the Orange have their best offensive lineup out there. This is particularly pertinent against North Carolina, who has the nation’s most efficient offensive attack and is the third-best offensive rebounding team in the country.

Lydon is a very intriguing prospect given his height, length and shooting ability. But he weighs 200 pounds soaking wet. Will he be able to hold his own against a team that includes first-team AP All-American Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks on the front line?

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Josh Hart vs. Buddy Hield: On paper, Josh Hart seems like he should be the perfect matchup for Buddy Hield. He’s long, he’s really athletic and he’s the kind of tough defender that drives an offensive player insane. In other words, he’s not afraid of contact or of doing the things that he has to do to get into Hield’s head. There’s a reason that Big East coaches hate to coach against him. But those aren’t necessarily the guys that give Hield the most trouble. He lit up Elgin Cook of Oregon, who has a similar physical profile to Hart, last weekend. Hield tends to struggle against quick, little guys that can chase him around screens, make it difficult for him to handle the ball and get up underneath and take away space on the catch.

Here’s the other part of it: Villanova doesn’t usually play straight man-to-man. They’ll play some different variations of zone — matchup, 2-3, 1-2-2 pressure, etc. — and they’ll also run some switching man-to-man defenses. Would they be willing to cast all of that aside to try and slow down Hield when Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have proven that they can win a game in this tournament when Hield is held in check?

And the key player on each team is

  • Kris Jenkins: Jenkins is the guy that makes Villanova so hard to guard. Prior to Saturday’s win over Kansas, Jenkins had made at least two threes in 11 straight games, scoring more than 15 points in 10 of those 11 and going for 20 in six of those 10. He’s a knockdown shooter with the best pump-fake in college basketball, one that’s good enough to allow him to get to the rim against power forwards despite the fact that he’s not overly quick. I don’t envy any coach that has to try to find a way to stop Jenkins and Josh Hart when Jenkins has it going.
  • Marcus Paige: It’s weird calling Paige an x-factor on any team, but that’s what he’s turned into with this group. And that’s also a testament to how much of a team player he is. Remember, this is a kid who was a preseason all-american as a junior, but he’s totally embraced the fact that Brice Johnson is this team’s best player and the Carolina front court is what has carried this team to the Final Four. He can still score, though. Ask Indiana, where he hit his first four threes and finished with 21 points and six assists. When he’s hitting shots from the perimeter, the Tar Heels are a different team.
  • Malachi Richardson: He scored 21 of his 23 points in the Elite 8 in the second half when the Orange erased a 15-point deficit and beat No. 1 seed Virginia. In a loss at Georgetown, he shot 1-for-8 from the floor. When Syracuse lost at St. John’s, he was 4-for-20 from the floor and 0-for-11 from three. He was 1-for-10 from the floor and 0-for-6 from three in a loss to Pitt. You see where I’m going with this? Richardson is a streaky scorer, but when he’s rolling, he’s as dangerous as anyone in the Final Four.
  • Jordan Woodard: We all know about Hield and you should know about Isaiah Cousins. But Woodard can play, too. He had 22 points in the win over Texas A&M when the Aggies sold out trying to stop Hield. If Villanova tries to do the same, the Sooners are going to need the same kind of performance from Woodard if they want to get to the title game.