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ANAHEIM — Buddy Hield grew up shooting at makeshift baskets made of milk crates and contorted bicycle rims. He woke up early each morning, tip-toed through his bedroom so that he did not wake up the six siblings who slept there and played all day on a dirt court, coming home at night smothered in soot. His neighborhood in the Bahamas, Eight Mile Rock, even sounds gritty.
Born with a flop of curly hair that reminded a family friend of the immortal Bud Bundy character from Married with Children, Chavano Hield soon became known Buddy. With an incandescent smile and bushel of raw talent, Buddy Hield quickly became Buddy Love during his four-year career at Oklahoma.
After leading the No. 2 Sooners to a 77–63 flogging of No. 3 Texas A&M in the West regional semifinal on Thursday, Hield now finds himself 40 minutes away from the Final Four. The Sooners will play No. 1 Oregon, which ran away from No. 4 Duke on Thursday, on Saturday at the Honda Center, the game marking a culmination of a throwback career that can complete a sweeping arc.
“I want to taste the Final Four,” Hield said. “I want to taste it. That’s my ultimate goal. This is my last year. I don’t want to give up until I get it.”
Hield sniped, darted and smiled his way to another dominant performance on Thursday night, powering Oklahoma with 17 points and a season-high 10 rebounds for his first double double of the year. He drained three-pointers, cut hard backdoor and emanated his infectious energy. The Sooners smacked the star-kissed Aggies, who only advanced after the largest last-minute comeback in college basketball history against Northern Iowa in the Round of 32. Their charmed run ended in a whirl of crimson, as Sooners junior guard Jordan Woodard led the way with 22 points. But the night provided another showcase of the resplendent talents of Hield, who drew the defense, spaced the floor and allowed the Sooners to operate unencumbered.
“[Oklahoma has] so many good players,” Texas A&M assistant Rick Stansbury said. “They took advantage of some of the things we did on [Hield]. They were good. They were real good.”
But it all begins with Hield, the modern throwback. He’s a nod to development over entitlement and maturation over coronation. He came to Oklahoma as a hyper-athletic role player and stayed four years. As a freshman, he averaged 7.8 points per game and shot less than 24.8% from the three-point line. As a senior, he’s scoring 25.4 points per game and shooting 46.3% from three. Along the way, he gradually expanded his game from a gliding athlete and deep shooter to a cagey NBA-ready player with a polished mid-range game. His ego failed to rise with his stardom, as he’s remained the happy and humble player who arrived in Norman in 2012.
“[Hield] has a drive and that charisma and that ability to draw people in,” Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield said. “That’s uncommon in this day and age. When you growing up playing basketball on a bicycle rim and a milk crate, that’s saying something about who you are.”
It’s difficult for a college basketball star to transcend into the mainstream sports landscape these days. The rise of the college football regular season and one-and-done culture have adversely affected college basketball’s regular season. Players often emerge one season and are gone the next, and the cycle of essentially rooting for laundry, like the old Jerry Seinfeld joke, continues. The familiar four-year college star has become a unicorn, as it takes a confluence of talent and limitations, patience and dedication, to keep a player around long enough for him to ingrain himself in the national consciousness. That’s where Hield finds himself this weekend, the superstar yearning for the biggest stage.
“I’m just glad I came back,” he said, “and showed my teammates and [helped] achieve the success to [get close] to the Final Four.”
Hield could have left for the NBA early last year, as he projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick. Now the 6'4" Hield projects as a top-10 pick. One NBA scout told SI.com on Thursday that Hield’s strengths include shooting the ball from distance, scoring while playing fast and setting his feet in a hurry. Another complimented his release and motor. Hield’s stock will only rise if OU reaches the Final Four.
“With him making this kind of run,” an NBA scout said late Thursday, “I’d be surprised he didn’t end up in the top 10.”
Buddy’s pals aren’t so bad either, as Thursday night showcased. Ryan Spangler, a burly 6'8" senior forward, runs the floor as if being chased by hungry dogs. Isaiah Cousins, a 6'4" senior point guard is equal parts smooth operator and effective instigator. Woodard took his star turn on 5-of-6 three-point shooting. Together, they join Hield to comprise OU’s so-called Core Four, which has started 103 consecutive games.
“It’s a team,” Cousins said. “Like it’s not a one-man team. Everyone can shoot on the floor. If Buddy is not hot, we have other people who can get things going and get the energy up.”
There was plenty of energy in the Oklahoma locker room on Thursday night. As Hield finished his interviews, the Sooners sang in unison the lyrics to “1Night” by Lil Yachty and talked giddily about the chance to meet Kobe Bryant. True to his infectious nature, Hield was more excited about meeting Bryant, who was in the Honda Center to see Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski. Hield and Bryant later chatted and shook hands.
“Champions always crave results,” Hield said, channeling his inner Kobe. “I’m a champion, and I want to see results.”
As the Sooners left the floor and ran to the locker room, Crutchfield greeted Hield with an imploring cheer for the Final Four: “One more!”
Hield shot back: “Three more!”
At this rate, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Sooners play for the national title next Monday night. It would mark the culmination of a long journey from the most humble of beginnings, an arc to stardom as endearing as it has been uncommon.