Wow, what a crazy couple of weeks huh? This year’s tournament certainly has not disappointed, bringing us double digit seeds advancing, plentiful overtimes, long distance buzzer beaters, and quite possibly the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. After two crazy weekends, we finally are down to the Final Four. As I mentioned in my previous March Madness blog, this tournament was wide open, and on the majority of brackets, this Final Four was not present.
The main story of this year’s college basketball season was the senior. All four teams that made the Final Four have valuable seniors surrounded by veteran teams that have helped them get to Houston. Syracuse and North Carolina played each other twice earlier in the year, with UNC winning both at home and on the road. Oklahoma played Villanova at home and beat them. Obviously, things change from the regular season to the tournament and I, along with many media pundits, expect both games to be entertaining and close.
The first game of this evening will be Oklahoma vs. Villanova. This game is interesting for a few reasons. Buddy Hield is arguably the best player in college basketball, and has been very entertaining during this run. I think he is the motor for this Sooner team, as he has helped spark them during this tournament, and is arguably the biggest reason for their Final Four appearance. Given Hield’s performance all year long, this isn’t too surprising. Villanova, on the other hand, has shocked me completely. I did not feel confident in Villanova going into the tournament, especially given their loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament, and their recent early exits in March Madnesses past. I was proven wrong when they beat Miami and Kansas last weekend in different fashions. In the Miami game, Nova shot the ball extremely well. They played a flawless game on the offensive end and beat Miami easily. Against Kansas, Nova played arguably their best defensive game of the year, by constantly challenging Kansas and limiting Perry Ellis’ scoring, frustrating the Jayhawks. Now, Villanova will meet Oklahoma in a game that has me extremely excited for 6:09pm to get here. Buddy Hield and Ryan Arcidiacono are the two seniors, leaders, and best shooters on their respective teams, and both will have an impact on how this game goes. To try to neutralize Hield, it wouldn’t surprise me if Villanova puts Mikal Bridges, a lengthy defensive forward, on the senior Sooner to try and limit his offense. If Hield is going to be off with his shot which isn’t too likely, Oklahoma will need to get a lot of rebounds from Ryan Spangler, and I expect Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard to pick up their game on offense in this scenario. In the end, I think Oklahoma will prevail, as Hield is having a special season ala Kemba Walker with UConn. Both players lead their team and the nation in scoring, and I believe Hield will also lead his team to a National Championship.
The second game on Saturday night will be North Carolina vs Syracuse Part III. ACC games are always competitive, and when the stakes are this high, prior head-to-head results should be thrown out the window. Both teams are peaking at the right time, and that should lead to some exciting drama late into this Saturday night. Syracuse has been a shocking team this tournament, with nobody expecting them to go this far. They probably benefited the most from the top teams going down early, including the #2 team in their region, Michigan State, and their stunning first round loss. ‘Cuse has played phenomenally in two come from behind wins against Gonzaga and UVA, and the zone and press has caused all sorts of issues for teams this tournament, and I expect them to frustrate Carolina a bit as well. While Syracuse has battled through adversity in each round so far, UNC has had an easier ride, beating every opponent by at least 14 points. The Tar Heels have done so with great rebounding which has limited opponents to one shot and gave them second and third chances on offense, and also success from beyond the 3 point line. If they can hit that 3 ball against Syracuse, they should make it to the championship game on Monday night. I’m looking for Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney step up in this big spot for UNC to help them get past Syracuse. While this has been primarily a senior focused season, freshman Malachi Richardson has been huge for Carolina on both ends of the court and will have to continue that trend tonight. I think Joel Berry and Marcus Paige will need to hit their 3’s against the Cuse zone, and I do think they will be up to the task. Add in Brice Johnson and his double doubles in points and rebounds throughout the year, and one has a lot of to be confident about with this UNC squad. In light of this, I think the Cinderella story for Syracuse will come to an end. UNC is too much to handle, and they are really clicking at the right time. Let’s not forget that UNC was the preseason number 1 entering the year, and if they perform as they should, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be in the finals after Saturday night’s festivities.
I am picking Oklahoma and North Carolina to win tonight and advance to the championship game. I think both of these teams’s veterans and success throughout the year will guide them to victory. The Tar Heels and Sooners should make for another wild game for the championship. Both teams really match up well with strong rebounders, scoring, and senior leadership. I think most or all of America would pick UNC to win this game, as they were the preseason favorites, have great scorers, and have arguably the best rebounder in all of college basketball. However, I think Oklahoma is on a special run, and that they are destined to be the UConn of 2011 or the Syracuse of 2003 where one player takes his game to a whole new level. Buddy Hield will be that player in 2016. His play this season has been truly special, and I don’t see it falling short of a championship.
All of America can agree that this tournament has been nothing short of incredible, and I really am hoping for some more drama during these final games. It would be great to see some nail biters coming down to the wire, or a buzzer beater shot to end a game, or a multi-overtime marathon, or who knows what else to go along with the madness of this tournament. Hopefully, these final games are as exciting as the others, but while they happen, let’s not forget to reflect on this college basketball season, and all the insanity we enjoyed because of it.