Villanova will cut the nets if: They can continue playing stellar defense.
Despite being a number two seed, few predicted the Wildcats, perennial tournament failures under Jay Wright, would reach the Final Four. However, after upsetting the top overall seed Kansas in the Elite Eight 64-59, and destroying Miami 92-69 in the Sweet 16, Villanova is beginning to turn many doubters into believers.
Villanova’s run to Houston has been built on its defense. The Cats have yet to surrender 70 points in a tournament game and have held two of its four opponents under 60. Villanova’s defensive intensity was on full display in their Elite Eight win over Kansas, in which the Wildcats held senior Perry Ellis, who scored a season-high 27 points against Maryland two days prior, to just five shot attempts and four points. Jay Wright’s game plan not only prevented Ellis from scoring but also negating any decent shot attempt.
For Villanova to beat Oklahoma and tournament darling Buddy Hield, and eventually North Carolina or Syracuse, they will have to take their defense to an even higher level. Both OU and UNC prevent problems that even top ranked Kansas doesn’t offer. Buddy Hield has been a nightmare for almost everyone this season and is averaging an incredible 29 points per game throughout the tournament. If Villanova cannot significantly limit Hield’s shots, it will be a long day for Jay Wright and his team. Similarly, North Carolina’s Brice Johnson would be an extremely difficult matchup for Villanova to tackle. Johnson excels from both inside and outside the paint, and has a much more polished inside game than that of Ellis. The last thing Villanova wants is a track meet, and to prevent that from happening, ‘Nova must stop the Tar Heels’ best player.
It is well-known that Villanova simply does not have the same talent and fire power as North Carolina and Oklahoma. However, Villanova can play with and beat both of them if they continue to lock down on the defensive end. While it will be difficult to duplicate their defensive effort against Kansas in the Final Four, Villanova will certainly be ready to pounce if Oklahoma comes out sloppy in the opening game on Saturday. Will the phrase “defense wins championships” hold true in Houston?
Oklahoma will cut the nets if: Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard are effective.
Regardless of how good Buddy Hield is, Oklahoma will not win it all unless they can get significant contributions from upper classmen Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. Woodard, a junior, and Cousins, a senior, are two of the most enigmatic players in all of college basketball.
In the first two rounds of the tournament, Cousins shot 48 percent from the floor and scored 31 points. In the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight however, the senior shot 24 percent from the field and scored just 13 points. Woodard, on the other hand, has been surprisingly consistent throughout the tournament averaging 16.8 points per game on 51 percent shooting.
A perfect example of the importance of Oklahoma’s supporting cast is their 109-106 loss at Allen Field House at the beginning of conference play. Despite Hield having the best individual game of any college player this season, scoring 46 points on 57 percent shooting, Cousins shot 2-14 from the field and the Sooners lost in triple overtime.
Although Buddy Hield will be the darling of this year’s Final Four, it will be the unsung heroes like Cousins and Woodard who decide the fate of the Sooners. If they both are hitting their perimeter jump shots, Oklahoma has an outstanding chance to cut the nets on Monday night.
Syracuse will cut the nets if: Their star players continue to catch fire
Even though much of Virginia’s second half collapse in their Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse was self-inflicted, there was nothing the Cavaliers could do about the performance of Malachi Richardson. The 6’6 freshman scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half, including a pull-up dagger three pointer over ACC Defensive Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
As a 13-loss 10 seed, Syracuse is certainly the biggest long shot to cut the nets Monday night in Houston. However, another performance like the one Malachi Richardson had in their Elite Eight victory over Virginia could give them an opportunity to pull another major upset. When a player as talented as Richardson gets going, there is sometimes nothing the opponent can do.
Despite their struggles during the season, Syracuse has a roster filled with players capable of having a performance similar to that of Richardson against UVA. Syracuse’s starting five against Virginia contains four 4-star recruits and one five-star recruit. Tyler Lydon, Cuse’s sixth man, is also a four star. Players like former Duke commit Michael Gbinije and senior Trevor Cooney are capable of getting hot at any time, which could spell trouble for North Carolina.
Being a 9.5 underdog against North Carolina shows just how little of a chance that the 10th seeded Syracuse is being handed on Saturday. It has been said one of the most difficult things to do in sports is to beat a team three times in the same season which is exactly what UNC will attempt to do Saturday. If one of Syracuse’s talented players catches fire, the Orange can give the Tar Heels or any team remaining a serious test.
North Carolina will cut the nets if: They remember who they are.
Call it cliché, but if North Carolina simply plays to their strengths they have the best chance to cut the nets when it’s all said and done. The performance of Notre Dame’s point guard Demetrius Jackson in their Elite Eight loss to the Tar Heels highlighted the shortcomings of the UNC backcourt. In fact, Jackson’s 26 points outscored both Joel Berry and Marcus Paige combined.
Where North Carolina excels is in the painted area led by All American PF Brice Johnson. In Sunday’s victory over Notre Dame, the senior scored 25 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dominated his counterpart Zach Auguste who struggled with foul trouble the entire game. Johnson, along with Theo Pinson, Kennedy Meeks, and Joel James form a front court that is extremely difficult to deal with.
The only way the number one-seeded Tar Heels could run into trouble is if they rely too much on perimeter shots. In their 74-73 home loss to Duke, North Carolina seemingly refused to feed Johnson inside during the final ten minutes despite him having a field day with Duke’s inferior front-line. Instead, North Carolina settled for threes from the likes of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, and Marcus Paige who went a combined 1-11 from distance.
If the Tar Heels settle for perimeter jump shots, a similar fate they suffered against Duke in February could be in store for them this weekend. The reality is no team in this tournament can deal with Johnson and the front court depth of North Carolina. If they play to their strength, North Carolina will cut the nets.