Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield is the best player in the country. North Carolina does an excellent job rebounding its missed shots. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense is difficult to penetrate. Villanova takes a lot of threes. These are some of the basic things to know about each team set to compete in the Final Four this weekend in Houston. But the national semifinals require a closer look—a more thorough examination of which squad could win and how. Below SI.com analyzes the frontcourt and perimeter matchups in both the Sooners’ game against the Wildcats and the Tar Heels’ game against the Orange.
No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova
Oklahoma: Hield has been awesome all season, but he has elevated his play in the NCAA tournament. The Bahamian bomber notched an offensive rating of at least 127.0 in three of Oklahoma’s four games (his mark throughout 2015–16 is 122.2), and the only exception was a 17-point outing against Texas A&M in which his teammates made easy work of the SEC’s top defense. One of those teammates was Jordan Woodard, a 6-foot junior who has drained 45.9% of his threes this season and averaged 1.35 points on spot up jumpers, which ranks in the 98th percentile nationally. Even if Villanova somehow manages to lock down Woodard (unlikely) and Hield (even less likely), it will need to contain another dynamic playmaker with deep shooting range. Senior Isaiah Cousins has assisted on about a fourth of Oklahoma’s buckets this season, he’s connected on 42.0% of his shots from beyond the arc, and you need to keep tabs on him in clutch situations. Just ask LSU.
Villanova: Villanova can counter Hield with arguably the top point guard left in the tourney. In his last four games, Ryan Arcidiacono’s offense has been more difficult to defend than his name is to pronounce. He’s hit 57.8% of his threes, committed four turnovers combined and missed only one of 14 attempts from the free-throw line. Arch has been a rock for the Wildcats since he played his first college game in 2012; now he’s ready to lead them to their first title game since 1985, and he won’t have to do it alone. Junior forward Kris Jenkins rated out as one of the Big East’s top three-point shooters this season, leading scorer Josh Hart can hurt Oklahoma from inside and outside the arc and one need look no further than Villanova’s upset over No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight to appreciate the kind of defensive impact redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges is capable of making.
Oklahoma: For Villanova, the problem with focusing on Hield and the rest of Oklahoma’s guards is that it could enable easier looks for the Sooners’ big men. Both Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin attempt more than half of their shots around the rim and connect at above a 70.0% clip. Spangler can hurt the Wildcats from outside the paint, too; he’s averaging 1.26 points on spot up jumpers, which ranks in the 95th percentile nationally, and knocked down 36.4% of his threes this season. Lattin’s range is limited, but he could swing this game with his defense. During Big 12 play the sophomore swatted 11% of opponents’ attempts inside the arc, the second-highest mark in the conference, and Oklahoma yielded 0.11 fewer points per possession in 2015–16 with him on the floor. And if Lattin doesn’t block the Wildcats’ first shot attempt, there’s a good chance Spangler will prevent them from getting another: he’s pulled down about a fifth of opponents’ misses this season.
Villanova: Senior center Daniel Ochefu entered the tourney amid questions over whether he had fully recovered from an ankle injury. He’ll leave it having served as Villanova’s interior anchor in wins over a talented Iowa team, a Miami squad with an imposing 7-footer (Tonye Jekiri), a No. 1 seed led by one of the nation’s top low-block scorers (Kansas’s Perry Ellis), possibly Oklahoma’s Spangler and Lattin and whoever the Wildcats could potentially meet in the title game. Ochefu may be a problem for the Sooners with his post-up scoring ability, but he’s more dangerous as a pick-and-roll finisher, averaging 1.56 points per possession, which ranks in the 98th percentile nationally. And while Lattin may be a better shot-blocker than Ochefu, the latter is a superior glass-cleaner. Ochefu corralled 28% of opponents’ missed shots and 12% of Villanova’s in Big East play, good for first and fourth in the conference, respectively. Moreover, junior forward Darryl Reynolds gives the Wildcats another solid scoring option on the inside.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 Syracuse
North Carolina: Marcus Paige’s three-point shooting has dipped from last season, but the senior is still capable of getting hot from deep. Paige connected on seven of his 12 long-range tries in North Carolina’s win against No. 5 seed Indiana in the Sweet 16. He probably won’t replicate that performance against the Orange, but the Tar Heels can lean on sophomore Joel Berry II for scoring. Though Berry’s three-point stroke has failed him in the tourney so far (26.3%), he has hit 37.6% of his attempts from deep this season. And besides, Berry has been really good inside the arc (66.7%) during the NCAAs, and he dished out a game-high eight assists in the Tar Heels’ Elite Eight win over No. 6 seed Notre Dame. Another major contributor for North Carolina in that win, sophomore wing Theo Pinson, went from wodnering why he did not have a seat at a news conference to propelling the Tar Heels during a key second-half run, and sophomore Justin Jackson is coming off one of his better games of the season.
Syracuse: Though North Carolina has two skilled playmakers running its offense, Syracuse trots out a 6’7” point guard who makes threes, facilitates effectively and steals the ball away from opponents while manning the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Michael Gbinije can create offense off the dribble, he assists on more than a fourth of the Orange’s buckets and you can’t give him space beyond the arc: the Duke transfer has hit 39.9% of his attempts this season. Yet Gbinije hasn’t shot as well from three-point range during the tourney as another of Syracuse’s guards, senior Trevor Cooney, who has connected at a 46.7% clip. Don’t confuse Cooney for a top-tier long-range marksman (34.9% this season), but he’ll let it fly if he gets the chance (252 attempts this season). If North Carolina builds its defensive game plan around stopping Syracuse’s veterans, it risks losing track of freshman Malachi Richardson, who scored 21 second-half points to lift the Orange over No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight.
North Carolina: Brice Johnson continues to receive less acclaim than he deserves despite serving as the best player on the Vegas favorite to win the national title and rising to the top of KenPom.com’s player of the year standings. Johnson is a force on the glass, he blocks shots, he gets to the line, makes nearly four of his every five free-throw attempts and he’s an excellent scorer around the rim (88.2%). But Johnson is only one piece of one of the nation’s best big men rotations. The Tar Heels deploy two other upperclassmen who both rebound more than 12% of North Carolina’s misses, which helps explain why Roy Williams’s team ranks third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. Isaiah Hicks draws plenty of fouls and, like Johnson, he’s a reliable finisher from close range, while Kennedy Meeks offers more rim protection. The players that constitute the Tar Heels’ frontcourt are plenty good in their own right, but the group’s overall talent and depth is even more impressive.
Syracuse: We’ve established that North Carolina is a very good at securing its missed shots. That’s bad news for Syracuse, which ranks 337th in the country in opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage. Yet while the Orange don’t do a good job cleaning the defensive glass, they excel at altering shots around the basket. Freshman Tyler Lydon definitely merits a mention for his aptitude in this area; he’s swatted 17 shots during Syracuse’s last three games, including one with four seconds remaining to seal the Orange’s win over No. 11 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Lydon is also one of Syracuse’s best three-point shooters (41%), though he’s more of a project than a fully formed rim-protecting, floor-stretching forward at this point. One of the Orange’s other primary big men, junior Tyler Roberson, is particularly productive in one of the dimensions of the game in which Lydon is not (offensive rebounding), and senior DaJuan Coleman represents Syracuse’s best hope at ending possessions with a defensive board.
Edge: North Carolina
Statistical support from sports-reference.com, kenpom.com, shotanalytics.com, synergysportstech.com, hooplens.com and hoop-math.com.