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.
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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.”
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.