The star against the starless. Buddy versus The Buddies.
The Oklahoma Sooners have been all about one guy this season: Buddy Hield. The Villanova Wildcats have been all about five, a group full of fairly anonymous players who have finally shed the underachiever label and led the program to its first Final Four trip since 2009.
Hield showed why this week he’ll likely bring home the Wooden Award when he scored 37 points in an easy 80-68 victory over Oregon. In a lackluster second weekend that has lacked of thrilling finishes and big-time performances, Hield had the signature individual rendition. He was sensational, drilling 8-of-13 shots from deep.
However, the casual college hoops fan identifies OU with one word: Buddy.
Hield is averaging 25.4 points per game this season, marking the first time since Dennis Scott in 1990 that a scorer averaging at least 25 points has made it to the final weekend.
In a season in which the sport was severely lacking star power and heralded LSU freshman Ben Simmons was unable to take his team to the NCAA tournament, Hield has carried the mantle. He’s an electric scorer who has become the college version of Steph Curry –- able to rain 3s from deep and beloved by all for his wide smile, Bahamian accent and outward love for the game.
While most are now fully aware of Buddy –- if they weren’t before Saturday night’s performance -– few can rattle off any names on this year’s Villanova team.
This is a true team. One moment, Josh Hart looks like the Wildcats' best player. On the next possession, it’s Ryan Arcidiacono. Shoot, some announcers can’t correctly pronounce Arcidiacono –- and many writers can’t spell it.
No coach was hotter than Jay Wright back in 2009 when Villanova advanced to the Final Four. Kentucky made a run at him after Billy Gillispie was canned, and some figured he'd be the next coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. But he stayed, and then the program took a quick turn south. Just three years after celebrating, Wright was scratching his head wondering what went wrong after a 13-19 campaign in which Nova finished 13th in the Big East.
For a six-year span, Wright & Co. didn’t get past the first weekend. But it all began to turn when Villanova landed Arcidiacono, then surrounded him with team-first guys such as Hart, big man Daniel Ochefu, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and reserves Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and Darryl Reynolds instead of me-first guys.
Wright didn’t made it a secret how much he loved this group, how the culture on the Main Line had gotten away from him, and also how aware he was of the perception that this program couldn’t do anything of note when it mattered most.
But that changed on Saturday night with a bunch of primarily unheralded players.
For Lon Kruger and the Sooners, a kid named Buddy has changed the perception of Oklahoma basketball.
These two teams met way back in December in Pearl Harbor –- and it was beyond ugly. Villanova couldn’t make a shot, yet kept launching ill-advised 3 after ill-advised 3. The Wildcats finished 4-of-32 from beyond the arc and made the trek back to Philly with their tails between their legs after a 78-55 humiliation.
Arcidiacono admitted that loss was the game-changer, or season-changer. They were written off as a potential Final Four team that night. But it made the Wildcats realize they had to be more selective with their shots, and it made them realize they had to play more as a team rather than trying to do it themselves.
Oklahoma? They have embraced the fact that it’s all about the Buddy system.