Featuring two regular season rematches, familiarity played a key role in each of the Final Four games. After losing to Oklahoma by 23 earlier this season, Villanova altered their game plan to hand the Sooners their own blowout loss.
North Carolina needed a late run to finish off Syracuse in the regular season, but allowed no such drama in their national semi-final rematch. They jumped out to a sizable lead on against Syracuse's traditional zone. Jim Boeheim did not switch to a press until late in the game, when UNC's victory was already in hand.
The Tar Heels' triumph capped a night lacking in drama, but one that reinforced many of the prevailing themes in this tournament. It is important to dictate pace, rim protectors are valuable, and elite offensive — not defensive teams are having success.
Both teams vying for a championship graded out as top-6 teams entering the tournament, and were seeded accordingly. While the championship matchup is not quite chalk, it is a far cry from the 8 vs. 7 seed final in 2014, or the 3 vs. 11 matchup from 2011, the last time the Final Four was in Houston. Before the tournament, both Villanova and North Carolina forecasted as strong championship candidates per FiveThirtyEight's ELO ratings, with UNC as the second-most likely champion, and Nova as the 6th-most likely. So how did these teams play up to, and above their lofty projections?
Showing Hard on Screens and Pressuring Ball Handlers
After the 44 point drubbing officially ended, many placed blame on Buddy Hield. His scoring was kept to single digits for only the second time all season. He struggled to find open shots either off the dribble or in catch-and-shoot situations. Villanova often showed hard on screens, and Oklahoma was ill-suited to counter this pressure. Hield especially struggled to find his shot all night, and finished just 1-8 on threes.
Oklahoma's auxiliary ball-handlers must also shoulder blame however. Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard were highly effective in their first meeting against Villanova, but yesterday they were hapless on offense. Their success is often a good litmus test for the opponent's perimeter defense. If Cousins and Woodard struggle to score, it is often due to stifling man-to-man defense on the outside.
Villanova remained in man-to-man for much of the game, occasionally switching to a zone. In both schemes the perimeter defenders were extremely active and willing to move well beyond the three point line. This disrupted Oklahoma's passing, and placed the onus on the ball-handler to create. Often times, they were not up to the task. After scoring 19 points with 10 assists in his first game against Villanova, Cousins ended his collegiate career with a meager 8 points to go with a lone assist. He did all this on 3-14 shooting, and added 4 turnovers.
On Villanova's side of the ball, Josh Hart's offensive masterpiece belied his defensive impact against Oklahoma. Despite being just 6'5'', his 6'8.5'' wingspan helped him corral loose balls and smother ball-handlers. Villanova's high-pressure defense was not only limited to its starters. Backup Phil Booth finished the game with 5 steals. As a whole, the team stuck to a modified scheme. They continuously pressured Oklahoma's guards without jeopardizing their half-court defense by entirely devolving into a full court press.
To ensure the efficacy of their outside pressure, Villanova needed strong rim-protection. Senior forward Daniel Ochefu was crucial in stopping Oklahoma. After allowing Kansas' guards to shoot 12-15 in the paint, Villanova limited Oklahoma's backcourt to just 6-15 shooting in the paint. They limited penetration in a fast paced game, and denied easy layups. It seemed like Oklahoma's ball-handlers were simply not equipped to take defenders off the dribble, and that includes Buddy. His chief offensive weakness this season has been an inability to create against elite man-to-man defense, and this was on display in full against Villanova.
With their three-highest usage guys unable to score or facilitate on offense, the result for Oklahoma was predictable. It was only the margin that was surprising.
Distributing Shot Attempts more Evenly
Anecdotally, Syracuse's offense ran through three guys all night. Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, and Trevor Cooney. The box-score stats reflect this, with the trio accounting for 71.4% of the FGA's, and 70% of the turnovers. This is actually not that far off the mean for Syracuse. For the season, that trio took 63.9% of all FGA's. Despite sharing the court with one another for the bulk of their minutes, all three finished with usage rates well above the average of 20%, led by Gbinije at 24.9%.
Syracuse had just a 6-man rotation against UNC. And while there's nothing wrong with a short rotation in a Final Four game, an inequitable distribution of usage does not have to be a byproduct. Both Syracuse and Oklahoma leaned heavily on a trio of guards for its offense all season. Last night, they did the same. And neither team generated any modicum of offensive efficiency.
North Carolina beat Syracuse behind a balanced offense that saw all its starters finish between 9 and 12 FGAs. Sure, they were the clearly superior team and probably would have won with or without an even distribution of usage. But that's not their style of play, and they have been balanced all season long. Each starter shoots between 8.2 and 10.9 FGA's/game, and all have a usage rate above 19.1%.
Often times, a balanced team plays that way out of necessity. Lacking a star, they counter it with depth. North Carolina does not fit that mold, with Brice Johnson as a bona fide star. They balance their usage by choice, with every starter capable of taking over a game offensively. Last night, it was Joel Berry who excelled. The sophomore guard continued his rise to stardom with a 10 assist performance, his second-highest assist total of the year. Comfortable beyond his years, he expertly found Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Josh Jackson for easy scores. Berry's performance however, was not a tourney fluke like Spike Albrecht's in the 2013 title game. UNC's balanced attack had given him chances to facilitate the offense during certain intervals all season. He simply got an even larger opportunity against Syracuse.
Villanova's defense succeeded against Oklahoma in large part because Oklahoma's high-usage players all do many of the same things. Each is a high-volume three point shooter who can (occasionally) penetrate and score in the paint, so it was fairly simple for one scheme to stop the trio as a whole. North Carolina's offense is not the same beast.
Opposing defenses must game plan specifically for Brice Johnson, but he is not the only cog in their machine. North Carolina manages to win (and even dominate on offense) in games where Johnson struggles. Against Clemson, he was just 1-8 and had 3 points. To combat his woeful performance, Berry and Paige ratcheted up their usage. The two combined for 34 points on 14-26 shooting, and UNC cruised to an 80-69 victory.
Facing NC State, Johnson again faltered. Saddled with foul trouble, he played just 18 minutes and scored 6 points. Compounding Johnson's struggles, Paige and forward Josh Jackson had awful nights of their own, scoring a combined 9 points on 3-18 shooting. On this occasion, Kennedy Meeks poured in 23 to lead UNC to a 67-55 win. Often seen as ancillary in North Carolina's high-octane offense, the hulking junior shot 10-16 on his career-high night. It's rare that Johnson does not contribute, but UNC has managed to succeed without him. The high usage rate of their other starters shows each player's potential for a big game. All they need is the volume.
I'm wary to even make a prediction given my bracket's performance leading up to this game. Take my pick with a grain of salt, but I think Villanova will win. I suspect it will be a slower paced game than UNC typically plays. This gives Villanova the edge, as they play at a much slower pace than UNC per KenPom's AdjT metrics. While Nova's red-hot shooting is bound to regress (58.2 FG% this tournament), they have a balanced offense in their own right. Offensive rebounds may doom them, but I think Nova's guard play and defense can counter UNC's torrid pace and daunting size.
Villanova 77, UNC 72