I doubt you will find anyone on the planet who has spent more combined time watching Oklahoma and Villanova than I have. I happen to agree with the implication of the point spread, that being that there isn’t much separation between them.
I hope that means we're in for a great game. Here are five keys that I see determining the winner in Houston on Saturday.
1. Checking Villanova’s fourth guard.
You hear the Golden State comparisons tossed out about Oklahoma every so often, but that strikes me as a more apt comparison for 'Nova. The Wildcats frequently have four knockdown shooters on the floor with range. That enables them to space the floor and open up lanes for wings Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacano, Jalen Brunson and the rest of the guards to get to the tin or kick the ball back out to the three-point line.
That's typical of a Jay Wright-coached squad. The distribution of shots stands out, though. Six of ‘Nova’s players are taking at least 20 percent of the team’s shots when they’re on the floor. Last year, there were three.
In other words, OU really can’t slack off any one player on defense in light of VU’s ability to hit threes. That means one of the Sooner big men has to guard a smaller, quicker player when ‘Nova has the ball. Not a good matchup.
2. Getting to the line.
I discussed this with Matt Zemek during our podcast earlier this week previewing the Final Four. Given how much playing in a dome appears to screw with outside shooting, generating points from the free throw line could be at a premium.
The ‘Nova guards are extremely savvy and excel at drawing fouls on the perimeter when defenders get caught out of position. Kris Jenkins, in particular, loves to take advantage and induce contact when his man leaves his feet.
OU’s guards really can’t afford to get sloppy on D, or they could find themselves spending prolonged periods on the bench as the Wildcats notch easy points from the charity stripe.
3. Sooners Off the dribble.
For as well as Buddy Hield has played in this NCAA Tournament, Jordan Woodard’s consistency has arguably made the difference in OU reaching the Final Four.
The junior wing appeared to lose all confidence down the stretch during the regular season. However, in addition to regaining his shooting touch, Woodard seems to have found his way to basket at a higher rate in the postseason.
The Sooners are at their worst offensively when opponents know they’re facing trigger-happy shooters who show only a passing interest in driving to the basket. OU definitely needs Woodard and the rest of his compadres on the wings to stay committed to getting to the rack.
4. Making OU uncomfortable.
Villanova’s 1-2-2 press clearly flummoxed Kansas last weekend. While the ‘Cats did force the Jayhawks to turn the ball over, the three-quarter-court trap also took them out of their rhythm offensively. The Jayhawks were starting their half-court offense later in the shot clock, which can create a lot of awkward scenarios for a relatively structured offense that generally flows through its post players.
OU’s offensive sets under Lon Kruger have never exactly wowed me. In this case, however, the freelancing, go-make-a-play approach may benefit the Sooners, who are less likely to get thrown off when faced with the opportunity–or necessity–to improvise.
‘Nova will continue to run its trap because it’s what Wright does. A better approach to frustrating OU would be to defend the Wildcat guards super tight and stalk Hield all over the floor.
5. The Lattin-Ochefu matchup.
Given how often OU center Khadeem Lattin finds himself in foul trouble, you could really apply this to all of the Sooner big men.
‘Nova always stocks up on quality guards, but Daniel Ochefu actually offers a legitimate scoring and passing threat in the post, which have been in short supply for Wright. Ochefu’s efficiency stats actually look ever so slightly worse this year that a season ago, which doesn’t make much sense when you watch him play. He definitely boasts a more robust range of post moves and a softer shooting touch this season. He's not just out there to set picks and convert putbacks.
The Sooners won’t be looking for Lattin to give them the same kind of scoring option down low. They are counting on him to protect the rim and defend Ochefu. If Lattin gets saddled with fouls early, it could seriously impair OU’s ability to stop the ‘Cats from scoring. As such, they’d need to hope that Ryan Spangler and whoever joins him off the bench can keep Ochefu at bay.
(Of course, that also means less capacity to help out on Villanova’s perimeter players.)
It's not Batman v Superman, but based on the reviews, that might be a good thing for Lattin-Ochefu. The matchup between centers will certainly go a long way towards to determining the outcome of Saturday's contest.