The final Power Rankings of 2015–16 rank not teams*, but rather, the things I’m most interested in watching at this Final Four:
1. Villanova’s ever-changing, counter-punching defense
If you had a hard time deducing exactly how the Wildcats’ defense stopped Kansas in the Elite Eight, that’s understandable, because they did a lot of different things. Villanova opened the game in a man-to-man that switched ballscreens at the 1 through 4 positions, then added a 1-2-2 press after made baskets that fell back into the switching man D. On the ninth possession, the Wildcats broke out a 2-3 zone, with senior center Daniel Ochefu willing to lift up higher from his back-line-center position than some 2-3s typically allow. After made baskets, this zone was preceded by a token press that simply had one guard pick up the ballhandler at three-quarters court, and another guard hover at center court (I’m calling it a 1-1-3), before falling back into the 2-3.
Villanova alternated between these schemes, and on only one occasion (late in the second half) did it play more than three possessions in a row with the exact same fullcourt/halfcourt look. This chart is my film-review attempt to log all of the Wildcats’ defenses vs. Kansas:
Within these looks, Villanova had counter-punches that foiled specific Kansas actions. A staple of the Jayhawks’ offense had been star senior power forward Perry Ellis setting an early ballscreen for one of their point guards, then receiving the ball after he popped to the top of the key; from there he could either take a three, or (more often) drive-and-spin against a recovering defender.
In the following clip, the Wildcats see it coming. They switch the 1 and 4 defenders, cutting off guard Devonte Graham’s penetration, and—this is the counter-punch—have a weakside-wing defender, in this case guard Ryan Arcidiacono, sprint into the play and steal the pass to the popping Ellis:
When the Jayhawks were struggling to post-feed Ellis against the swarming 2-3 zone, they ran a play in hopes of freeing him in the middle of the lane. Guard Wayne Selden ran along the baseline to draw the back-right defender out wide, then center Landen Lucas set a downscreen on Ochefu (or really, just plowed him under the basket) to clear the way for a feed to Ellis. But KU got ambushed, as guard Mikal Bridges flew in from the weakside corner spot and picked off the pass:
What counter-punches do the Wildcats have in store for Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield? There’s only so much you can scheme for against the most dangerous scorer in the Final Four, but I suspect ‘Nova will try to disrupt his wing pick-and-pop plays and the handoff actions the Sooners run for him when he lifts up from the corners.
2. The growing threat of Buddy Hield off the dribble
Hield’s halfcourt jump-shooting volume in 2015–16 is split exactly 50/50 between off-the-dribble and off-the-catch, and like nearly every elite shooter, he’s been far more efficient off the catch, scoring 1.52 points per possession as opposed to 0.98 off the dribble. But a different Buddy has taken over this NCAA tournament—one who takes the bulk of his Js off the dribble, and who’s also far more efficient off the bounce:
Buddy’s off-the-dribble mastery manifests itself in a few different shot types. Sometimes it’s a shot-fake and single, side-step dribble to avoid a flying closeout. Sometimes it’s a two-dribble stepback to create a sliver of space against a tightly attached defender ...
... and sometimes it’s a hard-drive-to-midrange stepback—combined with an off-arm bar to create separation—that leaves opponents such as Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey stumbling helplessly:
3. North Carolina working inside (rather than over) the 2-3
By multiple measures, the Tar Heels have the Final Four’s best offense. They rank No. 1 nationally in adjusted efficiency kenpom.com. The 1.33 points per possession they’ve scored in the NCAA tournament is the highest of the Final Four teams. Carolina scored 1.48 PPP in its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games combined, the highest of any team that reached the second weekend of the tourney. But should we believe in the Heels after they’ve put up those stats against Indiana and Notre Dame, which hardly have defenses the same caliber as Syracuse’s?
In this case, I do believe in UNC. On Jan. 9 at Syracuse, the Heels had the best offensive performance (1.22 PPP) of any Orange opponent this season—and UNC did it while making just three of their 16 three-point attempts. Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson is a zone-killing star because he’s amazing at making short-range shots in the pockets of the 2-3 as well as making inside-out passes; Justin Jackson can slash from the wings; and the whole team seems comfortable operating inside the 2-3 rather than attempting to shoot over it.
Even Carolina’s baseline-out-bounds (BLOB) plays work creatively inside the zone. Here’s one from their Feb. 29 win over the Orange in Chapel Hill, which starts with guard Marcus Paige’s lobbed entry to Johnson on the left wing, then has Paige step into the short corner while forward Isaiah Hicks pushes the right-corner defender toward the sideline with a screen. It finishes with Johnson diving to the rim against a cleared-out lane:
(Johnson didn’t make the layup, but regardless, that’s a nice BLOB play against a 2-3.)
4. Syracuse and the (dialed back) three-point revolution
A Tweet from Sunday night is our launching-off point:
Syracuse is part of the Three-Point Revolution Final Four, but the Orange dialed back their volume in the Sweet 16 (taking 24.6% of FGAs as treys vs. Gonzaga) and Elite Eight (31.6% vs. Virginia). Here’s what their three-point volume trends look like over the course of the season; will they continue trending downward, or try to beat UNC from long range?
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are the anti-revolutionaries. They haven’t cracked the 40%-of-FGAs-as-threes barrier all season, and they’ve only cracked 30% in one NCAA tournament game (the Sweet 16 vs. Indiana):
While Villanova has the highest three-point rate of any Final Four team on the season (43.1%), the Wildcats, like Syracuse, have pulled back on threes over their past three NCAA tournament games ...
... which means that Oklahoma-Carolina would be the true Threes-vs.-Twos national title game, because the Sooners haven’t backed off on treys at all during the NCAAs. Even more reason to root for the NRG Effect not to be real:
(* If I had to rank teams in order of most to least likely to win it all, it would be North Carolina, then Villanova, then Oklahoma, then Syracuse—with another asterisk, because I also ranked the Orange last in the Sweet 16, and you know what happened.)