In Saturday’s first Final Four game, Villanova and Oklahoma will play in a rematch of December’s game played in Hawaii. The Sooners won that first meeting 78-55, handing Villanova their first loss of the season. The story of the game was three-point shooting. Oklahoma finished 14 for 26 (54%) from three while Villanova finished just 4 for 32 (13%).
Despite the 23-point loss, Villanova is actually slight favorites to advance to the championship game. The Wildcats are currently the number one ranked KenPom team, but does the earlier blowout loss give us any extra information on what to expect in the rematch?
I found every instance of a team with a superior ranking than their opponent losing by 20+ this season. Then, I looked at how the teams that lost by 20+ played in other games against that same opponent. The results are below:
The sample size is super small here, but teams in Villanova’s situation are remarkably 11-2 in these situations. I should note the home-court advantage plays a big role in some of these results. Most of the 20+ point losses were on the road followed by a rematch at home. However, the point here is that Villanova playing a poor 40 minutes of basketball is not enough information to conclude that Oklahoma is simply a bad matchup for the Wildcats.
What has changed between now and December?
Oklahoma is about as experienced of a team as you will find in the country. Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins, and Ryan Spangler have somehow started every single game for three straight seasons for Lon Krueger.
In a recent presser, Jay Wright said that as such an experienced team Oklahoma was in a better spot early in the season than Villanova. The younger (although not that young) Wildcats have had more room for growth, according to Wright.
The biggest difference has been Villanova becoming less reliant on the three. The Wildcats started out the season in a terrible slump from long range. However, since then Villanova has raised their efficiency but lowered their attempts. Take a look at this game-by-game graph of three-point attempts:
Over 50% of Villanova shot attempts were threes in eight out of 11 games to start the season. The Wildcats haven’t gone over that mark since March 1 against DePaul.
Take a look at some of the poor three-point attempts taken against the Sooners in game one. Arcidiacono pulls up for a contested transition look despite being the only Villanova player over half-court. Jenkins and Hart both pull the trigger off a simple ball reversal with no player movement involved:
I’ll get into how Oklahoma forced Villanova into tough perimeter shots like these later on. Still, the Wildcats have showed signs of relying less on the three for months now.
Villanova and Oklahoma: Defensive Similarities
These two teams play very similar styles on both sides of the ball. Defensively, both rely heavily on switches. Switching prevents defenses from having to rotate. Rotations combined with proper ball movement by the offense generally lead to good shots. Therefore, Villanova and Oklahoma will sacrifice potential mismatches (a guard on a big, for instance) to avoid open shot attempts.
When an opponent exchanges or screens off the ball on the perimeter, Oklahoma is going to switch. So much so that their man defense can even look like zone at times. Take a look at the clip below where Oklahoma switched on the perimeter about seven times in under 10 seconds:
Villanova is very similar on the perimeter. As long as Daniel Ochefu is not involved (or back-up Darryl Reynolds), Villanova will switch. This next clip shows Arcidiacono going from guarding Spangler to Cousins to Woodard back to Spangler in a matter of seconds:
There really is no sense in focusing on individual matchups in this game. No one person is going to be tasked with shutting down Buddy Hield or Josh Hart. Instead, it will be a collective effort.
Villanova and Oklahoma: Offensive Similarities
Offensively, the focus for both teams is how to play not plays. In other words, neither team has an extensive playbook full of different tricks to get easy baskets. They both run motion offense driven by great spacing, great ball movement, and reading the defense.
When all else fails, spread pick and rolls (with some post-ups mixed in) are the way these teams generate great looks. However, both have a few set plays they use over the course of the game.
In game one, Oklahoma’s go-to play was Motion Weak Slip. The play is broken down below:
The play starts with Cousins cutting through to the weak-side to shift the defense. After a ball reversal, the 5-man (usually Lattin) runs up like he is going to set a ball screen only to slip right into a pin down for Cousins. On the weak-side, Spangler sets a pin down at the same time for Hield.
At its best, the slip is designed to put the defense into their pick and roll coverage. This leaves them unprepared to guard the surprise pin down actions. I counted at least six times the Sooners ran some variation of the play against Villanova. They scored off of it twice. The six plays are in the video below:
On the other hand, Villanova’s go-to play in game one was HORNS Double Away. That play is also broken down below:
The point guard comes off one of the bigs on the elbows (usually Ochefu) for a ball screen. Then, the two bigs go to the weak-side to set a staggered screen for the corner guy. The next look after the stagger, a post-up is usually triggered for Ochefu.
Villanova ran HORNS eight times against Oklahoma, scoring only once. One of the times they ran a flare action for Jenkins after the ball screen instead of the double away. You can take a look at all eight below (the flare variation is at the very end):
Oklahoma Guarding Ball Screens: ICE
Last season I wrote about Oklahoma’s improved defense that involved ICE pick and roll coverage. Oklahoma stuck with this coverage in game one against Villanova and there is no reason to expect any change in game two.
“ICE” is where the man guarding the ball handler does not let him use the screen. Instead, he is forced to the baseline. The man guarding the screen setter drops into soft center field, in the spot where the guard should be forcing the ball to.
Oklahoma has used ICE consistently on side ball screens all season with great success. Keeping the ball out of the middle and establishing a weak-side of the floor allows for weak-side defenders to load up to the ball and still have time to recover.
Villanova is generally very good at using side ball screens going to the middle of the court. ICE presents a challenge for them to maintain their normal efficiency.
There are two keys adjustments I think Jay Wright and staff should make in order to beat Oklahoma’s ICE:
1. Put Jenkins in more side ball screens instead of Ochefu
Because the big plays soft center field in ICE, it is a long close-out to a shooter off a pick and pop. Villanova has a fantastic shooting 4-man in Jenkins to run this pick and pop. Take a look below as Jenkins attacks a close-out when Oklahoma ICEs and gets a wide open layup:
Ochefu is the normal screen setter for Villanova, but he doesn’t have the shooting ability to pick and pop. Using Jenkins more in ball screen situations will force Oklahoma to either give more responsibility to the man guarding the ball to stay in front, or allow for some open threes off pops.
2. Be more unpredictable with “random” side ball screens after reversals
Performing ICE coverage requires great communication and execution. The guy guarding the ball must know a screen is coming in enough time to jump to the high side. If he is late, the ball handler can get middle and now the soft center field is useless.
Oklahoma thrives when offenses make it very obvious they are going to set a side ball screen. Villanova can help themselves by adding an element of unpredictability with random pick and rolls off ball reversals.
In the play above, Oklahoma has great pick and roll coverage initially. However, when the ball is swung quickly to the other side Hield doesn’t have enough notice to properly ICE. Brunson bails the Sooners out with a tough three, but the clip shows exactly how Villanova can use ball reversals to catch Oklahoma sleeping.
Villanova Guarding Ball Screens: Soft Center Field
As a general rule of thumb, Villanova is going to switch most ball screens not involving Ochefu. With Ochefu involved, the Wildcats did not hedge at all in game one. Instead Ochefu dropped into center field and the man guarding the ball was given the responsibility of fighting through the screen. The big difference between this coverage and ICE is that Villanova does not force the ball to the baseline.
Here is a look at the coverage below:
Ochefu stays in the paint on the middle ball screen which puts a huge amount of pressure on Mikal Bridges. Bridges must fight through the screen. Isaiah Cousins is given quite a bit of room to operate, but the thought process here is probably that you can live with a long pull-up two if it allows for more rim protection.
Assuming that Jay Wright stays with this coverage on Saturday here are my two keys for Oklahoma’s offense:
1. Use the running start at Ochefu to get him in foul trouble
Reynolds has been a serviceable back-up this season, but Villanova can ill afford to have Ochefu in foul trouble. The soft center field essentially gives the ball handler a running start at Ochefu in the lane.
Too many times in game one Oklahoma bailed Villanova out by taking contested mid-range shots off the soft center field. Watch as Isaiah Cousins pulls up for a foul line floater instead of challenging Ochefu:
Ochefu is a very good rim protector, but he is also foul prone. Oklahoma cannot let the soft coverage lull them into taking inefficient jumpers.
2. Don’t force on switches, instead take advantage of mismatched help defense
Like I said before, Villanova will switch ball screens if Ochefu isn’t involved. As a result, guards like Ryan Arcidiacono will often end up on a big like Ryan Spangler. The general tendency for offenses in this situation is to stop moving the ball in favor of honing in on the mismtach. Instead, I would like to see Oklahoma use ball movement and the mismatches to their advantage. For instance, big men aren’t used to playing help defense while having to close out on a guard/shooter.
By continuing to run their offense and moving the ball, Oklahoma can expose these mismatches more naturally without bogging down the offense.
Oklahoma Guarding Post-Ups: Trap
The single most effective thing done by either team in game one was Oklahoma trapping Ochefu on all post touches. The Sooners trapped with the strong-side wing closest to the ball. The defender trapped for about two seconds to bother Ochefu before leaving to find the vacant man.
Of course a post trap means that Villanova should have a 4 on 3 every time Ochefu passes out. While that is the case, the trap made it very hard for Ochefu to make the right pass.
Oklahoma’s execution and rotations off of the trap were fantastic. The goal was to only trap for a couple seconds to make Ochefu either back up or pick up the ball altogether. One time in particular, Ochefu was able to keep his dribble and momentum towards the hoop. Sure enough, Oklahoma immediately trapped a second time after rotating – this time making Ochefu pick up the ball:
This is just awesome defense and illustrates how good both of these teams are at executing their coach’s game plans. The execution makes both teams a pleasure to watch.
Villanova Guarding Post-Ups: Straight Up
For Villanova, their post defense was nearly the opposite. Oklahoma doesn’t have a dominant back to the basket big, so the Wildcats generally left their post defender on an island to guard one-on-one in game one.
Oklahoma doesn’t post-up a whole lot, but Spangler did go at Jenkins several times back in December. Three of these post-ups are below:
Oklahoma has great shooters and playmakers in Hield, Woodard, and Cousins. Helping in the post would come at the sacrifice of paying less attention to those three guards. I would expect Villanova to continue to tempt Spangler to beat them in the post by not sending much help at all.
The X-Factor: Isaiah Cousins
In game one against Villanova it was Cousins, not Buddy Hield, that was the most used player for the Sooners. Cousins finished with 19 points and a career high 10 assists while dominating the ball. He is a talented slasher who is shooting the ball over 40% from three for his career, but does have a tendency to over dribble some.
In fact, Oklahoma has generally been better this season when Cousins tones down his offensive game a little:
Villanova’s soft coverages and switches will making it enticing for Cousins to look to be aggressive. However, I think Oklahoma is at their best (as is any team really) when playing within the flow of their offense and letting their great shooters stretch out the defense.
With so many great shooters on the floor for both teams, the most obvious effect on the outcome will certainly be who gets hot from deep. The game will be played at Reliant Stadium, which is an environment that has possibly had a negative impact on shooting in the past.
The big decision Lon Krueger will have to make is if he will continue to trap Ochefu post touches despite Jay Wright having a week to prepare for it. That element of surprise from game one is no longer an option in game two.
On the other hand, Villanova has a better opportunity to make a surprise adjustment that they didn’t show in game one. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily reinvent the wheel. Wright has done a great job of installing his brand of basketball with this team and usually doesn’t let any given opponent dramatically change the Wildcats’ foundation.
Saturday will feature two really good teams that play aesthetically pleasing basketball. The fact that it is a rematch from earlier in the season and that both coaches have a week to prepare just adds more intrigue to what should be a great game.