As he sat in front of his locker Sunday, North Carolina forward Brice Johnson was asked if Villanova was beatable.
That’s quite a change in narrative from the beginning of the NCAA tournament when the storyline involved questioning whether the Wildcats could advance to the second weekend.
Viewers susceptible to recency bias, though, might think that the No. 2-seeded Wildcats are the basketball gods’ version of the perfect team. After all, Villanova just ran Oklahoma off the court in legendary fashion, as the 44-point, 95-51 demolition was the most lopsided game in Final Four history (this includes national championship games, too).
In truth, even the Wildcats (34-5) were surprised by how dominant they were against the Sooners on Saturday night. And they can’t really explain how they shot 71.4 percent from the field, either.
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“Honest to God, I have no clue,” senior forward Daniel Ochefu said. “I’m not a 3-point shooter. Those guys, whatever they’re doing, if they’re eating something different in the hotel, they got to keep doing it, because I love the way they’re shooting. It’s easy for me to just get dunks and layups.”
Villanova, which faces UNC in the national title game Monday night, is pretty much the spiritual opposite of the Tar Heels in terms of offensive identity.
UNC (33-6) prefers to play from the inside-out, working the ball into the post for close-range shots and to draw opponents into foul trouble. Earlier in the week, UNC coach Roy Williams said he has never seen a national champion team shoot 35 3s. Villanova coach Jay Wright wouldn’t mind if his team tried to be the first.
“We’ll take the 3 over the 2 any day,” Ochefu said. “If I do make my moves to score and I see an open guy, I’ll pass it out.”
Only two high-major teams (Auburn and Michigan) take more 3-pointers than Villanova in the course of their offense – 43 percent of the Wildcats’ shots this season have come from behind the arc. Villanova doesn’t hit a particularly high percentage of those 3s, shooting 35.9 percent from deep, which ranks 114 out of 351 Division I teams.
We recruit guys that are good shooters. We want them to come in and shoot with confidence first. Maybe they’ll be a little reckless.
Villanova coach Jay Wright
The high-volume 3-point attempts, though, are by design. Wright calls his offensive philosophy “Shoot ’em up and sleep in the streets.” A team can’t win if they don’t take a lot of shots, and Villanova always has four capable 3-point shooters on the floor.
“We recruit guys that are good shooters,” Wright said. “We want them to come in and shoot with confidence first. Maybe they’ll be a little reckless.”
Reckless was what the Wildcats were in their first game against Oklahoma, a 78-55 Dec. 7 loss on a neutral court in Hawaii. Villanova took 32 3s – and made just four.
“But I’d rather them start from a point of confidence and aggressiveness, then try to refine them, rather than start them inhibited and tentative, then try to build them up,” Wright said. “Just the way we’ve done it.”
The Wildcats only took 18 3s against the Sooners Saturday night, but they made 11 of them. And because teams know Villanova will shoot 3s with reckless abandon, opponents have to defend the Wildcats out past the 3-point line, which can open up 2-point shots, too.
Enter Ochefu there.
“He’s really the key to our run,” Wright said. “We’ve always told big guys – I’ll give you a little recruiting pitch right here – ‘You want to come and play with these great guards. If you’re with great guards, they’re going to get you the ball, and they’re not going to double-team you, and you’re going to be able to score.’ ”
The Wildcats aren’t counting on shooting 71 percent from the floor again against the Tar Heels, which is probably smart. Villanova’s defense, though, has been equally as impressive against Kansas and Oklahoma, as the Wildcats’ small lineup allows it to switch on ball screens with positions 1 through 4.
UNC, which beat Syracuse 83-66 in the Final Four Saturday, will counter Villanova’s shooters with size inside. On paper, neither team is a great matchup for the other, which should lead to an entertaining game.
“It’s going to be a battle of wills, because they do some things that we don’t,” Wright said. “We have perimeter play that’s different, a lot different than theirs. Obviously, we’re going to have to deal with their size, their length, their rebounding, their inside game.
“This is going to be a hell of a game.”
For the record, Johnson does think Villanova is beatable.
“Every team is beatable for us,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they be beatable? Why would you ever think that a team is unbeatable? That’s not the smartest thing to think.”