Final Four showdown looms: UNC-Syracuse, Oklahoma-Villanova
HOUSTON — Buddy Hield has been the talk of this year’s men’s NCAA tournament, and for good reason.
The senior guard from the Bahamas has been lighting up the scoreboard, averaging 29 points per game in this year’s tournament. There hasn’t been a scorer like this in the NCAAs since Stephen Curry averaged 32 points in the 2008 tournament when he was at Davidson.
But Hield did not appear comfortable with the comparison to Curry when asked about it in Houston at NRG Stadium.
“It’s cool, but I’m not close to him,” Hield said. “He’s on a different level from me.”
Hield, the No. 2 scorer in the nation this season at 25.4 points per game, leads Oklahoma (29-7) into its first Final Four since 2002 and fifth in school history. The Sooners have never won a national championship in men’s basketball.
“When you’re a little kid, you always dream about moments like these, and back home the only time I got to watch college basketball was March,” Hield said of his days growing up in Freeport in the Bahamas. “I would go home from school and watch these games any time I had, so to be a part of this now is great.”
Oklahoma’s opponent: The No. 2 Villanova Wildcats (33-5), who are in their first Final Four since 2009 (fifth overall).
This will be the second time these teams have faced each other this season. Oklahoma beat Villanova 78-55 on December 7 in Hawaii.
But despite the blowout loss, Villanova relishes a chance to play Oklahoma again.
“We do want them again,” senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. “They did smack us, and they have gotten better the rest of the year and we have gotten a lot better, and we are looking forward to another opportunity to play against them.”
Oklahoma and Villanova is the first game of the night and is scheduled to tip off at 6:09 pm ET on TBS.
In the second semifinal, which will tip off 40 minutes after the Oklahoma-Villanova game ends, the other two teams are even more familiar with each other, as both are from the Atlantic Coast Conference. No. 1 North Carolina (32-6) has defeated 10 Syracuse (23-13) twice this season, winning 84-73 at Syracuse on January 9 and 75-70 at home on February 29.
Even with the previous success against Syracuse this season, the Tar Heels don’t plan on taking their opponent lightly.
“It doesn’t mean they are going to come in and have the same results,” UNC sophomore guard Joel Berry II said. “We just can’t get complacent with those two wins that we had. We have to come out here with the fire we’ve been playing with and try and get the win.”
Despite its reputation as a title contender in previous years, Syracuse, with the up-and-down season it has had, is one of the most improbable Final Four teams in the tournament’s history.
Losing 13 games this season, including going 1-5 in its final six games before the NCAA tournament, Syracuse was in danger of missing the tournament altogether as a bubble team. Additionally, the Orange’s head coach, Jim Boeheim, was suspended for nine games earlier this season for what the NCAA said was failing to monitor his basketball program.
“It was interesting,” said senior guard Trevor Cooney of Syracuse’s topsy turvy season. “We proved we could beat anyone, and we proved we could lose to anyone. Sometimes, that’s just how it is. We know what we need to do to win. The experience helped us.”
As the lone No. 1 seed left in the tournament, the Tar Heels are the clear favorite Saturday night. But don’t take that to mean that UNC — a program making its 19th Final Four appearance, the most in NCAA history — necessarily has any added pressure. According to senior guard Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels are “comfortable and confident playing anybody.”
“There is always pressure,” Paige said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to play well, but at the same time we are the favorite for every game in our minds no matter who we are playing, so it does not change our outlook very much.’