Final Four Previews & Predictions - Oklahoma vs. Villanova

(2) Villanova vs. (2) Oklahoma

Initial Thoughts:  In a clash between the West and South Regional champs, Oklahoma and Villanova will square off for the second time this year after first crossing paths at the Pearl Harbor Classic in Hawaii.  If the re-match goes anything like the first meeting, Jay Wright's team will have a looooong flight home.  The Sooners smacked the Wildcats 78-55 back in December, in what may have been the biggest disparity in shooting performance I've ever seen.  While OU was unconscious from the outside (14/26 from 3), Villanova left their jump shots back in Philadelphia, knocking down an embarrassing 4 of 32 from beyond the arc.

It's no secret both of these teams love the 3-ball, so whoever shoots it better this Saturday in Houston should be the team that marches on to the final.  Unfortunately, both squads may be at the mercy of the massive NRG stadium, which will produce a less than ideal backdrop that distorts shooter's depth perception.

Looking back at last year's regional final and the 2011 Final Four, both of which were played at NRG (previously Reliant Stadium), I wanted to see how significant the shooting drop-off was, if any, for teams playing in this big bad dome.  Out of the 8 teams that played in this venue, only Duke last year was able to match its season long 3-point shooting percentage for those two games.  Just for context, Oklahoma and Villanova are currently shooting 43% and 35% respectively from 3 this year.

On an unrelated note, this shows how good Kemba Walker's 2011 UConn team was defensively, given they cut down the nets shooting just 9% from 3.

Over the last two games, the Sooners have been red hot from deep, cashing in on 12 of their 24 3-balls against Oregon and hitting 11 of 25 against Miami.  However, they actually struggled a bit in their earlier round matchups, most notably against VCU in round 2.  In that game, OU only connected on 31% of their 3s (8/26), and were forced to take deeper, more contested shots against an extended Rams man-to-man defense.  On Saturday, they'll face a Nova man-to-man defense that sags off a lot more than VCU and is focused on limiting penetration and interior scoring.

The Sooners should not find this look unfamiliar, as they themselves will play a similar style of man defense on the other end.  The difference is OU will play their man-to-man almost exclusively in this game, while Jay Wright will probably show a ton of 1-2-2 three quarter court pressure, which gave Kansas all kinds of problems in the regional final.  No matter what defensive look Wright decides to show, there should be a TON of 3s jacked up in this one on both sides, and I suspect the majority of them will NOT find the bottom of the net.


Villanova on Offense:  My colleague Jim Root and I were both incredibly frustrated with the Wildcats offense against Kansas last weekend.  Nova's half-court offense looked incredibly stagnant, as they had difficulty initiating the offense as a result of Kansas's extended perimeter pressure.  For some maddening reason, Nova's half-court sets generally start with a point-to-wing pass (most of the time to Josh Hart), with the wing player simply "posting-up", instead of cutting to get open or using a screen to generate separation from his defender.  This was incredibly problematic, as the KU guards (mostly Devonte' Graham, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden) refused to let this initial pass be made easily, so Hart was forced to catch the ball 30+ feet away from the basket, which stalled the subsequent ball-screen or off-ball screen action.  

However, what this pressure did do is open up more space on the interior, where Daniel Ochefu had plenty of room to set up on the low block and go to work.  As I previously mentioned, the Sooners man defense will take a different approach than KU,  and should allow the Nova wings to easily catch on the first pass. 

Here you can see how easily Oregon is able to make side-to-side passes around the perimeter, with no real pressure from the Sooner guards at all:

I also wanted to highlight a unique case in which Elgin Cook got the initial wing pass from the point, with OU's stretch-4 Ryan Spangler matched up on him.  This will probably look eerily similar to how many of Nova's possessions will start Saturday, except Kris Jenkins will be playing the role of Elgin Cook:

Looking back at the tape from the Nova/OU game in December, Jenkins had this same open wing 3 whenever he wanted, as Spangler continuously dared him to shoot it.  However, this strategy paid dividends for the Sooners, as Jenkins finished 0/5 from behind the arc and was never able to penetrate with Spangler giving him a step or two on every catch.  With that said, Jenkins is currently shooting 38% from deep on the year and leads Villanova in 3-point attempts, so I suspect he won't be bashful to let it fly Saturday, especially if Spangler continues to give him this much space. 

While the extra freedom on the perimeter will surely give the Nova guards more room to work off ball-screens and to penetrate, the downside is that Ochefu will have limited 1 on 1 opportunities to score on the low-block. In the December matchup between these two, OU consistently doubled the post on all of "Chef's" touches, which put a ton of pressure on the guards to knock down outside jumpers.  Here are two examples, where Cousins does a nice job of timing his pressure after his man makes the entry pass:

If Kruger takes the same approach defensively on Saturday, Nova will have to shoot better than the abysmal 12% they shot from 3 against OU in Hawaii.


Oklahoma on Offense:  While I already mentioned the similarity between both of these teams man-to-man defense, an extra weapon Nova has in its arsenal is the deadly 1-2-2 trapping zone, which has been spearheaded by human octopus Mikal Bridges.  He simply terrorized the smaller Kansas guards at the top of the 1-2-2, racking up 5 steals, including the game-clinching strip on Graham with under 30 seconds to play.

The good news for OU is that they have the personnel to beat this pressure, assuming they take a similar to approach to how they beat Oregon's 1-3-1 zone.  With Isaiah Cousins as the primary ball-handler, OU has a 6'4 point-guard that is taller/longer than both Graham and Mason for Kansas, making it much easier to throw over the top.  Spangler is also critical against this scheme, given he is an excellent decision-maker and passer for his size, as well as a capable ball-handler.  Notice this setup against the Oregon zone, and expect to see a similar structure against Nova's 1-2-2:


Putting Spangler and Cousins up top will mitigate the length of Bridges disrupting cross-court passes.  This also allows Woodard and Hield to find openings on the back end of the zone, which will make it crucial for the top 3 Nova defenders of the 1-2-2 to recover back immediately.  Jay Wright's team should communicate much better in their 1-2-2 and matchup zone Saturday, as they saw what happens when you don't close out quickly to Hield, Cousins and Jordan Woodard on the 3-point line.  

This bring me to my next concern, which is how Nova's defense matches up stylistically with Woodard and Cousins.  When OU has struggled this year, Woodard and Cousins have over-relied on midrange scoring, where they are noticeably less efficient than from beyond the arc.  While Cousins has an effective crossover, midrange pull-up, he still shoots better from 3 (42%) than he does from inside the arc (40% from 2).  Woodard has the same directional shooting splits as Cousins, but MUCH more pronounced.  While Woodard has been exceptional from 3 this year(46%), he has been a dumpster fire scoring in the paint and converting at the rim (38% from 2).  He simply has no confidence finishing around the basket, especially against elite length.  

The issue is that because Nova plays a lot of matchup zone, Cousins and Woodard won't be forced to shot-fake and drive into the teeth of the defense, and should get most of their open looks from the outside. Wright may need to show more man-to-man in this game to force Woodard and Cousins off the 3-point line because if they don't, the Sooners may put up another 14 for 26 shooting display from 3, like they did in the first meeting.

Key Factor(s):  Who will control the tempo? ...  Against Kansas, Villanova was adamant on slowing down the game, purposefully walking the ball up the court off every miss and even on live ball turnovers.  I mentioned in the Kansas/Nova preview, it was critical for Nova to limit Kansas's transition opportunities, which Wright clearly emphasized.  While this snail's pace was effective defensively, I actually thought it hindered the Wildcats offensive rhythm, and it if weren't for their defense and a couple of big shots late, I'd probably be here writing about Kansas/Oklahoma Round 3, and how Villanova let a golden opportunity slip away.

Predictions:  I still can't make up my mind about this Villanova squad.  On one hand, I saw an elite defensive team against Kansas that possesses the versatility to both pressure and force turnovers away from the basket, and also limit penetration and scoring around the rim.  On the other hand, I also saw what may have been Kansas's worst offensive performance of the year, and a Villanova team that almost found a way to squander a gift-wrapped final four ticket from the Jayhawks.  

What I'm much more certain about is the trajectory of this Sooners team right now and the matchup favorability they'll enjoy against Nova.  While I think both teams will struggle to shoot it from the outside, I think OU is the better candidate to make a higher percentage of their 3s and should be able generate scoring in other ways more consistently.  Give me Boomer Sooner and the UNDUH in this one.  The sharp money clearly already beat me to this analysis, as the total has already dropped 4 points over the past 4 days.


SU Pick: Oklahoma
ATS Pick: Oklahoma +2
O/U Pick: Under 144.5