SI asked scouts to break down the strengths & weaknesses of each Final Four team.
This week the NCAA will punish North Carolina and Syracuse for their respective scandals by asking them to miss at least two more days of class to focus on basketball.
Not playing basketball. Promoting basketball. There are open practices to hold and, of course, there are press conferences to conduct, during which somebody will ask about those scandals—a resolution to the academic fraud investigation at UNC is expected soon—which means the NCAA is forcing players to skip class so their coaches can defend their commitment to schoolwork, which is kind of awkward, but anyway, let’s talk about Buddy Hield.
How awesome is this guy? The Oklahoma guard scored 37 points against Oregon, and that wasn’t even his best game against a really good team this year. And Buddy is on the undercard of this Final Four. TBS has selected Syracuse–North Carolina as the late game, presumably because those teams have the biggest fan bases. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be a game for the ages.
We have a classic Final Four, in a sense: one clear blue-blood favorite (North Carolina), one heavy underdog (Syracuse) and two top 10 teams that could win the whole thing (Villanova and Oklahoma). You can count on a few things this weekend: Tar Heels coach Roy Williams crying, the Orange playing that 2–3 zone, the Wildcats defending relentlessly and Buddy being Buddy. If we were grading this Final Four, we’d give it an A plus. And we wouldn’t even make anybody go to class.
When the Wildcats have the ball
They can shoot the three, one through four, but what most people don’t see is, their two-point field goal percentage is extremely high. When they’re shooting [threes] at a high clip, it opens up the floor, and Daniel Ochefu can go to work inside. Their guards—Jalen Brunson, Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart (above)—are really good at pivoting in the paint and finding open shooters. A team that can guard one-on-one, that’s the best possible scenario to beat them. If you struggle one-on-one, it’s going to be a tough night.
Attacking Villanova’s defense
You have to take care of the ball and break their pressure, [and] that 1-2-2 press. They’re long, especially when 6'7" guard Mikal Bridges comes in, so they can trap you. When you get in the half-court, they do a great job of denying the high-post entry pass. It’s a different style of defense because while they pressure you initially, once you’re into the offense, they let you swing the ball a little more. You want to try to ball-screen [Ochefu] as much as possible, then get downhill and make them guard well.
Kris Jenkins. If he shoots it well, they become really hard to guard. You have to deny him the ball, but that gives the other guys space to drive and make plays. Which one do you want to take away? You can’t do both.
When the Sooners have the ball
Buddy Hield is going to get his, but you need to make him uncomfortable. If he wants to catch it at 22 feet, force him to 26 or 27. Buddy loves to go left and spin back right, but it would be foolish to overplay him and force him right because he’ll drive by you. Make him become a playmaker: He had 37 against Oregon; he also had zero assists and six turnovers. At the same time you can’t devote too much attention to him because the supporting cast—Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler (above) and Khadeem Lattin—can all beat you.
Attacking Oklahoma’s defense
There’s a dirty little secret about Buddy. He floats a lot on defense, loses his man in transition and is susceptible backdoor because he gets caught watching the ball. Lon Kruger puts up with it because if Buddy gives up six, he’ll get 10. As a team the Sooners are vulnerable to dribble penetration. They’ll switch on all their screens from one to four. You can plan to attack the switches, but you have to be careful. Open shots win games more than mismatches, and players like Cousins, who is 6'4", can guard lots of positions.
Jordan Woodard. Kruger switched him off the ball and made Cousins the primary ballhandler. When Woodard’s making shots—against Texas A&M he was 5 for 6 from three—they can beat anyone.
When the Tar Heels have the ball
The key is transition defense. They love to get up and down. And you’ve got to send as many guys as you can to block out. It has to be a collective effort because they’re sending three, maybe four to the offensive glass every possession. Are you going to live with some tough twos and take away the perimeter, or are you going to dig in the post and make the big guys kick it out? With the way they’re shooting threes, you have to limit Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II (above) and try to shut down their frontcourt.
Attacking North Carolina’s defense
It helps if you have two ballhandlers on the floor. You have to be a little slower paced; take some time off the clock, but also choose when to run; you can get some good shots in transition. They’re long on the perimeter, but you can exploit their big guys with ball screens. With them it’s more of a flat show than a hard hedge. Kennedy Meeks likes to stay back in the lane, whereas Brice Johnson is comfortable on the perimeter. Make sure their bigs don’t just stay down on the block—if you get them outside in a pick-and-roll, it’ll give you driving lanes.
Paige. There was so much pressure on him to be the guy, the lottery pick, all that stuff. Now he’s confident again, especially with how he’s shooting.
When the Orange have the ball
When Malachi Richardson gets going, they’re hard to beat. He’s a really physical driver and a good three-point shooter. With a lot of their stuff you’re chasing cutters coming off single staggers designed to get guys three-point shots. If you eliminate the three-point line and rebound with them, you have a good chance. But the way they can shoot with their size is a challenge. Trevor Cooney is 6'4". Michael Gbinije (above) is basically their starting point guard at 6'7"—how often do you see that?
Attacking Syracuse’s defense
It’s a very sophisticated zone—not your traditional 2–3. They have four guys above the free throw line almost all the time, so you’re playing from there or above against a set defense. It’s almost impossible to get the ball to the short corner or below the free throw line. Most teams have two or three zone offenses, but they do a tremendous job adjusting to each one. If you put in a new set or quick hitter against their zone and it works the first time, [even if] they haven’t scouted it, it’s most likely not working the second time.
Tyler Lydon. He’s a starter for most teams. At 6'8", he’ll play the three, the four and the five, so you have to figure out your matchups. He plays the five when they go small, and that’s a problem for other centers.