As long-range jumpers by Oklahoma shooters began falling at a staggering rate during a win-or-else weekend matchup with Oregon, a flashback interrupted my NCAA basketball bracket-monitoring session.
I reflected on a similar sight that unfolded in January, when the Sooners filled the nets in Waco with a school-record 16 3-pointers while ranked as the No. 1 men’s basketball team in the country. The Sooners scored an 82-72 road victory over Baylor that afternoon. But the final margin was respectable only because the Bears, who did not play poorly, closed the game on a 14-0 run against OU reserves.
After watching Oklahoma make a season-high 62 percent of its shots, including 57.1 percent from beyond the arc (16-of-28), Baylor coach Scott Drew compared the Sooners to the NBA champs, the Golden State Warriors. As that contest ended, I thought, “I just watched this year’s national champions.”
Alas, subsequent Oklahoma performances in Big 12 play changed that perspective. If not, my broken bracket would be in better shape as the Sooners (29-7) head to Houston for Saturday’s matchup against Villanova (33-5) in the Final Four (5:09 p.m., TBS).
But this much is clear heading into the final stage of March Madness: If the Sooners of January show up in Houston, as they did in the West Region finals by making 50 percent of their 3-point shots against Oregon (12-of-24) in an 80-68 triumph, OU should be the team cutting down the nets after Monday’s championship game at NRG Stadium. If the Sooners revert to their February form, when they struggled from the perimeter, their fans will be shaking their heads and wondering how they lost Saturday’s rematch to Villanova, a team OU routed 78-55 in a Dec. 7 contest in Honolulu.
For these Sooners, the bottom line is that much of a boom-or-bust proposition in March Madness. During January, the Sooners had a stretch where they topped the 50 percent mark from beyond the arc for three consecutive games and four of six, canning at least a dozen threes in each contest. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger envisions needing similar production in Houston for a team has buried at least half of its 3-point attempts in 11 of 36 games, including twice in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got to shoot it well to win. And making threes is a big part of that,” Kruger said during a Monday teleconference with Final Four coaches. “We’re a team that shoots the three. We’re not changing that overnight, nor do we want to. Late in the year, we’ve defended a little better and rebounded better to cover up the nights when our shots aren’t falling.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team is 9-1 in its past 10 games, would welcome catching the Sooners on a night when their shots are not falling. That was hardly the case in Hawaii, when OU made 14-of-26 shots from beyond the arc while Villanova made just 4-of-32 attempts from 3-point range and 31.7 percent overall. OU won by 23, providing Wright a valuable teaching tool he has embraced for three months.
“All year, we used that game as a bar to show our guys what a top-5 team looked like,” Wright said. “They were close to being a Final Four team at that time. We just now have gotten close to that.”
While Wright said his Wildcats have “great respect” for the Sooners in the wake of that shellacking, Kruger is faced with the challenge of convincing players and fans that Saturday’s rematch will be anything but a repeat of the cakewalk they enjoyed in December
“They’re playing with swagger now,” Kruger said of the Wildcats. “The first game, other than being familiar with their personnel, means very little to anyone. It’s almost like we played them last year. It doesn’t relate to this game at all.”
But the topic will be discussed, and the highlights replayed, with regularity until Saturday’s tip-off. Because OU never trailed while handing Villanova its first defeat of the season, the Wildcats project to be the more emotional team in the rematch.
The Sooners can quiet that emotion with a barrage of 3-point baskets, a strategy that worked last week but fizzled in February setbacks against Kansas State (80-69) and Texas Tech (65-63). The Sooners were a combined 12-of-47 from beyond the arc (25.5 percent) in those losses and went cold during an extended second-half stretch of a 76-63 loss to Texas that included a 22-0 run by the Longhorns.
Buddy Hield, the team’s leading scorer (25.4 avg.), is preparing for another boom-or-bust approach from the perimeter in pursuit of the Sooners’ first national title in Houston.
“It’s hard to take away the 3-point shot from us,” said Hield, who has connected at a 46.5 percent rate this season (146-of-314). “We’re going to shoot regardless if their hands are in our face or not.”
If the shots fall in Houston like they did in January, and again last week against Oregon, the Sooners should be the ones celebrating at the end of March Madness. If not, OU will bow out knowing it has taken its best shot — the one from beyond the arc — at winning a national title.
The Final Four
(At Houston; all games on TBS)
Villanova (33-5) vs.
Oklahoma (29-7), 5:09 p.m.
North Carolina (32-6) vs.
Syracuse (23-13), 7:49 p.m.