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Final Four Hits Houston This Weekend

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The pinnacle of the college basketball season has arrived with the Final Four hitting Houston and NRG Stadium this weekend. The action gets under way tomorrow at NRG Stadium with Oklahoma and Villanova tipping off shortly after 5:00 and North Carolina and Syracuse tipping off about half an hour after that game ends.

In many ways, it’s a shame that these games are being played at NRG Stadium because the history of NCAA Tournament games played inside that stadium has not been good. There’s no real shooting background, and that has really thrown off the depth of field for the players, making for poor shooting and low-scoring games. Duke won last year’s South Regional at NRG Stadium, for instance, by being the only team in Houston to shoot more than 40 percent from the floor.

And the 2011 title game between UConn and Butler is thought by many observers to be one of the worst title games in the history of the tournament. UConn won the game by a 53-41 score despite shooting just 34.5 precent from the floor and making just one of 11 three-point attempts. Butler, however, was able to hit just 12 shots for the entire game for a shooting percentage of 18.8 percent.

The better game of the two should be Oklahoma and Villanova, and it’s a shame those two teams are playing each other on Saturday because they’re really the two teams that should be playing each other for the NCAA title on Monday night. And it’ll be interesting to see how Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, one of the best players in college basketball this season, handles the shooting environment.

Hield averaged 25.4 points per game this season, and shot .465 percent from behind the three-point line. So his adjustments to the arena could be one of the chief keys as to whether Oklahoma can get past Villanova and advance to the final on Monday night.

Villanova won 33 games this season, and like Oklahoma spent time this season ranked as the country’s No. 1 team before hitting a late-season slump that cost the Wildcats a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova averaged 77.5 points per game, while holding the opposition to 63.6 points. Villanova also attempts around 25 three pointers a game, so it’ll be interesting to see how it, too, adopts to NRG Stadium’s poor shooting environment.

Saturday’s prime-time game, however, is North Carolina versus Syracuse. It features two college powerhouses (and conference foes) going against each other for the third time this season — both previous games being won by North Carolina. It also features Syracuse coming into the game as a number 10 seed who, many observers believed, did not even belong in the tournament based on the team's having won only 19 games this season.

This game is also kind of a nightmare game for the NCAA as both programs have been dogged by NCAA investigations for the past several years. Syracuse sat out last season’s tournament because of the NCAA, and head coach Jim Boeheim was forced to miss nine games this season as part of the NCAA’s sanctions. But if you ask Boeheim, which he was yesterday, he’ll tell you that even though his program was nailed for an institutional lack of control, his team didn't really cheat.

“But when they say 'cheating,' that's not true,” Boeheim told media yesterday. “Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit, you arranged a job for him or you went to see him when you shouldn't. You called him when you shouldn't to gain an edge in recruiting, to get a really good player. That's cheating.”

Boeheim might argue over the definition of cheating, but since some of Syracuse’s “broken rules” involved academic misconduct that was intended to keep players eligible, that sounds an awful lot like doing something intentional with the goal of keeping an otherwise ineligible player on the court, thus giving Boeheim’s team an unfair advantage over any of the few NCAA teams that might have actually followed the rules.

And a punishment has yet to be handed down to North Carolina, despite an investigation into academic fraud  that has lasted several years. But North Carolina head coach Roy Williams thinks that it’s not fair to talk about this issue, even though, if the NCAA had actually finished its investigation, the possibility exists that his team would not be in Houston right now.

“All that other stuff that sometimes I call 'junk' has been talked about too much,” Williams whined yesterday. “I really want to focus on my team, the other guys, their teams, what's happening. It's okay to be a college basketball player, and it's a great event to be in the Final Four.”

The winners of tomorrow's games will play for the championship game on Monday night even though, in reality, the best game of the bunch will probably be played tomorrow night. Hopefully, one of the teams figures out how to do what the other squads that have come into NRG Stadium in years past have not been able to do: shoot the basketball with a decent percentage. If not, fans could be in for another UConn-Butler-type game. And nobody wants that.

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