OKLAHOMA (29-7) vs. VILLANOVA (33-5)
Site/time: NRG Stadium, Houston, 3:09 p.m. PST (TBS)
How they got here: The Sooners are the West Region champion after eliminating Cal State Bakersfield, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M and Oregon, the closest call coming in an 85-81 second-round victory against the Rams. Villanova has been arguably the tournament’s most impressive team, emerging from the South Region with wins against UNC-Asheville, Iowa, Miami and Kansas, winning by an average of 19 points.
Coaches: Lon Kruger (Oklahoma, fifth season); Jay Wright (Villanova, 15th season).
The lowdown: First things first. Forget everything about Oklahoma’s 23-point win against Villanova on Dec. 7 at Pearl Harbor. The day’s first game has as much chance of being a repeat of that blowout as Kruger does giving the Wildcats any bulletin-board material. It doesn’t always happen that the nation’s best player advances to the Final Four, but it has this season with Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield, who will be the first, second and possibly third option on which Villanova will focus its hybrid defense of numerous looks. You have two teams that rely primarily on making jump shots playing in a football stadium that has not been kind to any attempt beyond a layup. In the 2011 championship game at NRG Stadium, Butler shot 18 percent from the field and Connecticut was 1-of-11 on 3-pointers. In the 16 college games the venue has hosted, teams have combined to shoot 32.3 percent. So the question becomes, which team can get at least mildly warm in a place known to freeze out shooters? An Oklahoma side that ranks second nationally in 3-point shooting at 42.8 percent, or a Villanova team that has shot 46 percent beyond the arc in the tournament?
Individual matchup to watch: Isaiah Cousins (Oklahoma) against Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova). The two senior guards each average about 13 points and are ideal complements to leading scorers Hield and Villanova junior Josh Hart. Should each side’s star be shut down, the game could be decided on Cousins or Arcidiacono having a magical effort.
Possible unsung hero for the Sooners: Christian James. The freshman guard comes home to Houston for the Final Four and off the bench for Kruger, where he leads the team’s reserves in 18.3 minutes per game and has shot 44 percent on 3s in the tournament.
Possible unsung hero for the Wildcats: Daniel Ochefu. Neither side possesses great interior play, but the 6-foot-11-inch Ochefu averages 10.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and is shooting 67 percent in the tournament. More important, he needs to help Villanova hold its own on the boards and not allow Oklahoma’s inside tandem of Ryan Spangler and Khadeem Lattin to play above their numbers.
Key stat: Four seniors for Oklahoma — Hield, Cousins, Spangler and guard Jordan Woodard — have started every game (104 straight) the past three seasons.
Did you know?: Villanova reached the Final Four by beating the highest possible seed it could have faced in each of the first four rounds.
Quoting Kruger:“Shooting is important, especially for our club. So much conversation about the stadium. The first couple shots here (at practice) were pretty bad. I was thinking, ‘Don’t let this get in their head.’ After that, we shot it pretty normally.”
Quoting Wright: “Most great college players have the ball in their hands all the time. (Hield) is so good not just coming off screens without the ball, but he gets himself spaced away from the ball and he lulls you to sleep, he stands still. Then the burst of speed with which he comes back behind the ball, you just don’t play against anybody like that.”
Prediction: Oklahoma 75, Villanova 71.
SYRACUSE (23-13) vs. NORTH CAROLINA (32-6)
Site/time: NRG Stadium, approximately 5:40 p.m. PST (TBS)
How they got here: Cinderella wears orange to the ball, as No. 10 seed Syracuse won the Midwest Region with victories against Dayton, Middle Tennessee, Gonzaga and Virginia. All four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Elite Eight, but only North Carolina survived, winning the East Region by dismissing Florida Gulf Coast, Providence, Indiana and Notre Dame.
Coaches: Jim Boeheim (Syracuse, 40th season); Roy Williams (North Carolina, 13th season).
The lowdown:Do you know that part about the NRG Stadium being the place where long-distance shooters come to die? That’s the only hope Syracuse has not to get buried on site. North Carolina is by far the most talented and versatile and deep team remaining, and if it can continue to make 3s as it has the past few games, not even that oh-so-frightening Syracuse zone will deny the Tar Heels a place in Monday night’s championship game. North Carolina has won nine straight by 10 or more, but it’s also true Syracuse has enough length and athleticism to bother the Tar Heels in spots. The press Syracuse employed to send No. 1 seed Virginia packing in the Elite Eight shouldn’t bother a Tar Heels side that goes 10 deep with little drop-off in skill. Syracuse also needs to do a much better job of blocking out of its 2-3 zone, given it ranked 337th nationally in defensive rebounding this season. The last thing Boeheim’s team can do is allow North Carolina countless second chances. The teams met twice this season, with the Tar Heels winning 84-73 and 75-70. This one just feels like North Carolina in similar fashion, if not by an even wider margin.
Individual matchup to watch: Tyler Lydon (Syracuse) against Justin Jackson (North Carolina). Two stretch-4 type players who run the floor as well as most guards, the emphasis here will be on Lydon and how the freshman forward might protect the rim against a Tar Heels team that is sure to grab its share of offensive rebounds.
Possible unsung hero for the Orange: Tyler Roberson. He had 20 rebounds in a game against Duke this season, and the junior forward grabbed 18 against Dayton to open the tournament. Now, he needs to help keep the game’s best player (North Carolina forward Brice Johnson) from controlling the boards at both ends.
Possible unsung hero for the Tar Heels: Kennedy Meeks. Johnson and senior guard Marcus Paige deservedly get most of the publicity for the Tar Heels, but Meeks is a 6-10 junior forward who has started to regain his early-season scoring form that could prove huge as the Orange rotate their zone toward more celebrated names.
Key stat: North Carolina’s assist-to-turnover ratio (1.66) ranks third nationally and is the program’s best mark since 1981-82, when turnovers were first recorded.
Did you know?: Syracuse is the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four and only the fourth double-digit seed to reach the tournament’s final weekend.
Quoting Boeheim: “I’ve never known how long I’m going to coach. I still don’t know how long I’m going to coach. You know, that’s not something I think about. I’ve never talked about my contract or the length of it for years. I’m still not talking about it. Al McGuire once told me, ‘One day I was driving to work, I come down the ramp and I turn right. The day I turn left, I’m not going to work anymore.’ He turned left one day. That was it. I’m going to turn left someday, too.”
Quoting Williams: “The Syracuse games this season went right down to the wire. The Golden State (Warriors) this year have beaten a lot of people four, five, six times. I’m not trying to compare us to Golden State. I guarantee you in the locker room, though, (coach Steve Kerr) doesn’t talk about, ‘We’ve beaten them seven times,’ because beating them eight is really hard.”
Prediction: North Carolina 74, Syracuse 65.