Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield has emerged as the face of college basketball. The senior from the Bahamas stands as the nation’s top scorer still competing in the NCAA Tournament.
He is coming off a 36-point performance in last week’s 85-81 victory over Virginia Commonwealth that Hield called his “best one” of the year because the Sooners (27-7) needed everything he had to offer to reach Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup against Texas A&M in Anaheim, Calif.
Hield, who scored 29 of OU’s 41 second-half points against VCU, mixed in seven rebounds and an assist in an all-around effort that drew a standing ovation and chants of “Buddy! Buddy! Buddy!” from fans in Oklahoma City. After the contest, VCU coach Will Wade paid Hield the ultimate compliment.
“Best player I’ve seen in college basketball,” Wade said. “Every time they needed a big basket, he answered the bell. He’s just phenomenal.”
He’s also the primary obstacle standing between the Aggies (28-8), the No. 3 seed in the West Region, and their first trip to the Elite Eight in school history. Asked about defending Hield, coach Billy Kennedy and his players made it clear that will qualify as a group effort.
“I’m not good enough to guard him by myself,” A&M guard Alex Caruso said. “I don’t think anybody else on our team would say they are. It’s going to take a full team effort.”
Kennedy stressed that he will not fret if Hield, whose averages 25.4 points per game, exceeds that mark against A&M. Hield has done so in both of the Sooners’ tournament triumphs, rolling for 27 points against Cal State Bakersfield and adding 36 against VCU. Hield’s two-game scoring average of 31.5 points per game is the highest mark of any Sweet 16 competitor.
“I don’t know if you shut Buddy down. Nobody’s been able to do it,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to guard the other guys, too, because those guys are really good. You have to approach it in a unique way.”
Kennedy plans to study videotapes from games against Kansas, the lone team that swept Oklahoma during both of its regular-season games in Big 12 play. But the videotapes will show that Hield posted a season-high 46 points during a 109-106 loss to Kansas in triple overtime on Jan. 4 and added a team-high 24 in a 76-72 setback on Feb. 13. That’s a combined 70 points (35.0 average) in two matchups against the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Beneath the surface of Hield’s smiling, nice-guy persona beats the heart of an extreme crunch-time competitor that Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger plans to ride as far as the senior will carry this team’s national title dreams. As the No. 2 seed in the West Region, Oklahoma has plenty of those.
Kruger said Hield has “got really great focus at that moment when the shot needs to be made or a play needs to be made. He’s done it so many times for us throughout his career, and especially this year. And it’s not that easy to do, especially with the defense leaning on you and targeting you.”
Latest example: Last week against VCU, Hield made 11 of 20 shots from the field. In the second half, with OU struggling to protect a narrow lead, Hield made 9 of 12, including 5 of 8 on 3-point attempts. As a senior leader on a veteran team seeking to take Oklahoma to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2009, Hield said he feels a heightened sense of urgency.
“You don’t get these moments back,” Hield said. “Everybody’s watching, so just relishing these types of moments is special.”
Hield said lessons learned in last year’s 62-58 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 should benefit him and his teammates against A&M.
“They just out-toughed us on the boards and we took plays off that we shouldn’t. I took plays off that I shouldn’t have taken off,” Hield said. “So watching that film from last year, it hurts to see the things that we could have done to win the game. I’m just ready and glad we get the opportunity to redeem ourselves.”
Redemption will have to come against A&M, a team that has victories over three Big 12 schools that made the NCAA Tournament (Texas, Baylor, Iowa State), as well as a triumph over Kansas State.
But none of those opponents, Kennedy noted, had a scorer like Buddy Hield. Oklahoma does. That has created a strategic dilemma for Kennedy, who senses an unspoken communication between Hield and Kruger during games.
“Buddy looks like he’s calling plays to Coach, and Coach says, ‘OK, yeah, Buddy.’ They’ve got an unbelievable relationship,” Kennedy said. “They’ve been successful doing that all year.”
To extend its season, A&M must curtail that success in Anaheim.
West Region semifinal
Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma
6:37 p.m. Thursday, TBS