By Andrew Kahn
The regular season was exciting and unpredictable, and the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament reflected that. As the frequency of games decreased, so has the drama, no more evident than in Saturday’s Final Four blowouts in Houston. Villanova blasted Oklahoma 95-51, a semifinal record for margin, and North Carolina topped Syracuse 83-66. It sets up what should be—what we hope will be—a competitive final tonight (9:19 ET, TBS).
1. Best shooting ever
The Wildcats shot 71.4 percent on Saturday, the second best output in a Final Four game. The record remains Villanova’s 78.6 percent shooting in the 1985 title game win over Georgetown. However, that, and other top shooting games, pre-date the shot clock (the ’85 Cats attempted just 28 shots; Villanova took 49 on Saturday), making this recent performance the most impressive.
Josh Hart went 10 of 12 and Ryan Arcidiacono went 5 for 6. You don’t win by 44 points without dominating on both ends of the floor, and Villanova shut down Buddy Hield by playing great man-to-man defense and always shading an extra defender towards him, forcing him into 4-of-12 shooting (1-of-8 from three) and four turnovers. All of this combined to obliterate the Final Four margin of victory record. It was also the largest margin in this year’s Tournament, surpassing Oregon’s 39-point win over 16 seed Holy Cross. Villanova scored more points in the second half (53) than Oklahoma scored in the entire game.
2. Bye, Buddy
“It was just one of those nights,” Jay Wright said after the game, a statement he or Lon Kruger could have made after the teams’ first meeting in December. And yet, sadly, as much of a blowout as Oklahoma’s 78-55 win over Villanova was, this was far worse.
The Sooners showed some spark in the first few minutes of each half, but that was it. Hield scored the game’s first points, on a three, and Oklahoma led 17-16 before Nova’s 21-4 run. Down 42-28 to start the second half, Hield again opened the scoring. Despite missing six shots on one possession, the Sooners displayed a renewed energy on the boards. Jordan Woodard’s put-back off his own free throw miss cut the deficit to nine, but it would be the last time Oklahoma fans cheered:
Despite plenty of open looks from three, Oklahoma couldn’t buy a basket. It was a sad end to Hield’s college career, as he was held to single digits scoring for just the second time all season.
3. Carolina’s dominant frontcourt
The Tar Heels settled for deep threes too often early in the game against Syracuse. They finally started going to work inside, where they were effective enough that, despite missing their first 12 threes, they led by 17. A 10-0 run midway through the second half changed things, but that’s when Marcus Paige hit the team’s first long-range shot; he and his teammates would make four of their final five attempts, perhaps giving them some confidence for tonight. With Carolina’s frontcourt, it’s all they needed. Brice Johnson (16 points), Justin Jackson (16), Kennedy Meeks (15) and the rest of the Heels scored 50 points in the paint. The prettiest basket came on Paige’s true “touch” pass to Meeks for a slam:.
4. Syracuse’s run ends
Unlike the lopsided result in Saturday’s first game, Syracuse not hanging with UNC for 40 minutes was no shocker. They were tied at the eight-minute mark of the first half, and their aforementioned run, keyed by Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson, had Orange fans thinking about the late comebacks against Gonzaga and Virginia. But Syracuse continued to extend its zone past the three-point line when the Heels hadn’t made an outside shot, and the full-court press that had worked against Virginia predictably played into the hands of speedy Carolina. Syracuse’s 4-of-13 showing at the free throw line didn’t help. It was an amazing Tournament run for Syracuse, but double digits seeds fell to 0-4 in the Final Four.
5. Title game preview
Tonight’s championship game pits the ACC’s regular season and tournament champ against the Big East’s regular season champ. Both teams spent time at No. 1 this season. This is Carolina’s 10th appearance in the title game; they’ve won five times, most recently in 2009 after beating Villanova in the Final Four. The Wildcats appeared twice previously, winning their lone title in 1985. The two programs last met in an 8-9 NCAA Tournament game in 2013, a Carolina victory.
Oddsmakers have UNC as a three-point favorite. Both teams have mostly steamrolled through the Tournament. Carolina’s margins have been 16, 19, 15, 14, and 17. Villanova has won by 30, 19, 23, and 44, with the lone close game a five-point win over Kansas in the regional final.
According to KenPom, these are the country’s top two offenses. Like every team in the country, Villanova will struggle to contain Carolina in the paint, but with the way Nova has been playing, you would think the Heels would need to hit five or six threes (out of, say, 15 attempts) to stay ahead. It will be a special night for Carolina guard Nate Britt and Villanova forward Kris Jenkins. Britt’s parents became Jenkins’ legal guardians in 2007.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.