It’s been pretty much established over the years that college basketball games played at NRG Stadium are awful games. There’s something about the layout of the court and of the stands that makes it hard on depth perception. So the games become a contest of missed shots ands sluggish play as teams try to find momentum and search for ways to score points.
That changed on Saturday. Kind of.
Sure, Oklahoma, the team with the flashy scorer in Buddy Hield, made just 31.7 precent of its shots while hitting just six of 27 three-point attempts. But Oklahoma’s opponent, Villanova, hit an astounding 71.4 percent of it shots (including an amazing 11 of 18 from three-point range) to demolish the Sooners 95-51 in the largest blowout in NCAA Final Four history.
Villanova “just dictated [the play] on both ends of the floor,” Oklahoma’s head coach, Lon Kruger, said. “They were great. We didn't respond very well to it. Again, not happy about that, of course. But, you know, [we] got whipped in every way.”
Then came the nightcap that saw North Carolina defeat Syracuse by a 83-66 score. UNC was zero for 12 from the three point at one point late in the game, yet handily won the game by totaling an incredible 50 points inside the paint, where depth perception isn’t as much of a big deal.
So maybe the shooting background isn’t such a big deal at NRG Stadium. Or maybe it still kind of is. UNC adjusted its offense to go inside when its shots wouldn’t fall, while Syracuse continued attempting three pointers and shot just barely over 40 percent for the game. And maybe Villanova just had one of those incredible nights when everything is possible, including making three points shots while Oklahoma looked as if it couldn’t even hit the side of a barn with a basketball from three inches.
“I'm happy we had one of those games where we just make every shot,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We had end-of-shot-clock shots we just threw up and went in. Kind of similar to our game [a 78-55 loss earlier this season] in Hawaii against Oklahoma. They made everything; we couldn't make anything. It was simply one of those nights.”
Wright also stated that his team had a problem making shots inside NRG during practice earlier this week. But he credited those practices with helping his team to adjust to the shooting environment. It can also be argued that Villanova wins its game without hitting threes as it got 38 points in the paint and hit 14 free throws, proving perhaps it’s not the ability to hit jumpers that wins games played at NRG Stadium, it’s making layups and hitting free throws.
Syracuse doesn’t defeat North Carolina if it makes free throws, but no team is going to win a game when it makes just four of 13 from the charity stripe. Making the free throws keeps the Orange within single digits of the Tarheels and perhaps puts a little more pressure on North Carolina to make shots. Though, as Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim argued, buildings do matter, and smaller arenas provide better shooting environments.
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“Good shooters are going to shoot wherever it is, I think,” Boeheim said. “You do shoot better in smaller buildings. There's no question backgrounds help. In the Atlantis tournament, a small building, we shot 50% from the three. The rest of the year we shot about 30. Buildings do matter a little bit. But good shooters are going to make shots.”
The building environment may not have affected Villanova, but it did hurt North Carolina a bit. Roy Williams did adjust his team a bit, going inside more often than normal, but he told his guys to keep shooting three pointers because he wanted a balance offense. And though North Carolina struggled from deep range all night, when Syracuse made a late second half run and cut the lead to seven points, it was a North Carolina making its first three pointer of the night that seemed to be that final dagger in the heart of the Orange.
“We didn't shoot the ball well on the three-point line the first half,” Williams said after the game. “[Boeheim] asked me when we came out at halftime...if we're going to keep shooting them. I said yes, because North Carolina tries to have good balance inside and outside. The two biggest baskets in the game were when they cut it to seven and Marcus [Paige] makes a three.”
So it’s Villanova versus North Carolina on Monday night. Two teams that seem to have, for the moment, solved the problem of shooting the basketball inside of NRG Stadium. But have they got it down, or was Saturday just as close to perfection as two teams, especially Villanova, can get? And no matter what happens, let’s all hope that this doesn’t turn into another version of the awful Butler/UConn final of 2011.