March Madness Reaches April Climax
By John Ventola
March Madness was fun, this year’s NCAA Tournament has provided a number of surprising upsets, and down to the wire, competitive games. Highly regarded Michigan State lost its first game while lowly rated Yale won its first contest—–ever. It has been a real Bracket Breaker, with only one No. 1 seed, North Carolina, advancing to the Final Four, and Syracuse becoming the first ever No. 10 seed to reach the “Big Dance”.
Now it is April, and the culmination of the 2016 collegiate basketball season will come
Monday night when the national championship game of the Final Four is played in Houston’s NRG Stadium. The two winners of Saturday’s semifinals will take the court Monday to do battle in the title game. Three of the four participants have captured national basketball championships before this season. Only Oklahoma, a long-time football power, has never reigned as the king of college basketball.
Provided you do not have a ticket to the Texas event, it is time to kick back in the recliner and follow the bouncing ball. The semifinal matchups will pit teams that played earlier in the season.
Oklahoma trounced Villanova by 23 points back in December. The early season game was played appropriately in Pearl Harbor on December 7th. National player of the year, senior Buddy Hield, paced the Sooners all year long with his scoring, but he had only a fair game against the Wildcats, scoring just 18 points on six for 17 shooting. Although he failed to launch many of his patented rainbow bombs against Villanova (Hield was four for 9 on threes), the sharpshooter did finish second nationally in scoring, and is averaging 29.3 points a game in the NCAA tourney.
Senior guard Isaiah Cousins hit all four of his three-pointers in the Hawaii rout as the hot-shooting Okies made 14 of 26 three-pointers and outscored Villanova by 17 points in the second half. Ryan Spangler, a 6-8 inside player, joins Hield and Cousins in
providing productivity and senior leadership. Junior guard Jordan Woodard helps run the show as the point, and main ball handler.
Unbelievably, Villanova shot a meager 12.5 per cent on three pointers (four for 32) in that matchup. The Wildcats have improved steadily under the guidance of coach Jay Wright and come into the game off of an impressive defensive game to beat No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the Elite Eight. ‘Nova defenders limited the touches of Kansas star Perry Ellis, and held the Jayhawk All-American to four points.
Saturday’s first game will feature the up tempo offense of Oklahoma and the stern defense and crisp passing of Villanova. Much traveled Sooner coach Lon Krueger is a creative strategist and has designed the Oklahoma offense to take advantage of the uncanny shooting abilities of Hield and his teammates.
Wright, on the other hand, is a defensive tactician that will, no doubt, try to contain Hield and force other Sooner players to beat his squad. The strategy worked against Ellis and Kansas, and if it is successful again Saturday, the Wildcats will be playing for their first national title since the magical upset of Georgetown in 1985.
Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono and 6-11 senior post man Daniel Ochefu lead the Wildcats’ well-balanced attack. Arcidiacono averages 12.3 points per game from his guard position while Ochefu averages 10.1 and plays outstanding defense. Juniors Josh Hart (15.3) and Kris Jenkins (13.5) play key roles also.
The second semifinal game will have two of the country’s top basketball coaches on the
sidelines. Together, Syracuse head man Jim Boeheim and North Carolina mentor Roy Williams have coached 177 NCAA tournament games, the most by any two coaches matched up in any NCAA tourney game. Boeheim, who has his team in its sixth Final Four, won the national title in 2003 with star freshman Carmelo Anthony. Williams, coaching in his eighth Final Four (four with Kansas and four with UNC), won titles in 2005 and 2009.
North Carolina will be appearing in its 19th Final Four, most by any school.
Syracuse and the Tar Heels have met twice this season, UNC winning both games, 84-73 at Syracuse in early January, and 75-70 in Chapel Hill in late February. The first game was tied at halftime before Carolina pulled away late in the game. The second affair was also not decided until late in the game.
Duke transfer Michael Gbinije leads the Orangemen in scoring (17.6), but Malachi Richardson’s 21 points in the second half against Virginia eliminated the No. 1 seeded Cavaliers. Gritty guard Trevor Cooney provides leadership while rangy inside players Tyler Roberson and Tyler Landon spark Syracuse’s tough 2-3 zone defense.
Boeheim used the suffocating zone to stop Virginia and lead his team back from a 14-point second half deficit. Syracuse will have to contain Tar Heel star Brice Johnson
(17.1) and hope that UNC’s outside shooters continue to struggle from long range. North Carolina only shot 32% from three-point range this season, a surprising percentage for the talented team.
Marcus Paige and Joel Berry will have to loosen up Syracuse’s compact zone with outside shooting. Paige showed signs of coming out of a shooting slump with solid performances in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games.
My thoughts? Oklahoma will win Saturday. Not by a big margin, Villanova has improved too much for that to happen. Buddy Hield will be on stage. If he can stay hot throughout the game, the Sooners will be playing in their first national championship game Monday night. If Villanova can get Heild out of rhythm, the game will be close.
I am leaning towards a Syracuse upset if Paige and Berry are unsuccessful from outside. It is clear that the talent of Syracuse is not what usually comes with a No. 10 seed, a bubble team that almost did not get into the tournament. And I always subscribe to the belief that when two teams—in any sport—have equalized talent, it is tough to beat the other team three times in a season
Championship? It will be fun to watch the fast paced Sooners go against the defense of
Syracuse. Hield will show why he is the nation’s top layer, and Oklahoma will capture its first national championship in basketball.
I can write the headline for Tuesday’s newspapers now. As a photo of a smiling Buddy holding the trophy accompanies the story, “Sooners Championship Trophy Hield High”.[signoff)