There comes a time in every game when a team realises they will win. A moment can change everything – a good team becomes a great one, a strong season becomes the one that sends a team into the Final Four. Oklahoma, Villanova, Syracuse and North Carolina each had those moments. Let's take a look at their journeys to the Final Four.
Buddy Hield could've entered the NBA draft. He was a projected first round pick. But he knew he wanted to be even stronger. “I know the best decision was to come back and improve… When that time comes, I'll be ready”.
It's not just the fact he returned. It's his mentality. In the six-month gap between 2015-16, Hield shaped himself into a consistent player with better range.
Th Sooners needed him to return, to improve, to be more reliable. And he did.
Hield raised his 3-point rate nearly 10 percentage points this season. He made 64 percent of his shots from the rim, up from 54 percent in 2014-15. He made 55 percent of his shots inside the arc, up from 47 percent last season. He made a tremendous effort to improve his offensive game, and the entire program obviously benefited from his offseason decision.
Which is why an Oklahoma team who failed to move past the Sweet 16 last year, will play in the Final Four next week.
Villanova may have won over Kansas, but late in the game, Ryan Arcidiacono remembered with horror the Wildcats’ loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament championship game.
A slow defensive rotation cost them that game, and in a situation almost identical against Kansas, Arcidiacono’s command was a the wake up call they needed. “Don’t help”.
Which helped them stay focused in a close game against the Jayhawks, so different to their first three games of the tournament in which they won by an average of 20 points.
In preparation, Villanova looked at how they'd allowed Seton Hall to be the aggressor and trailed by 11 at halftime. Coach Jay Wright only had to show them the opening minutes of that game to get his point across. He told them, “If it happens again, we're going home”.
This time, they're not going home. They're going to Houston.
Malachi Richardson just had to say it. Shout it, so it could be heard over the din of cheering Cuse fans and jeering Virginia fans. “They can't guard me!”
In that moment, the 10th seeded, shouldn't-be-in-the-tournament Syracuse felt the Final Four could be a reality.
"I was hot," Richardson said. "And whoever they had in front of me couldn't stay in front of me."
“They” were the Cavaliers, Midwest’s No. 1 seed, one of the nation’s best defensive teams. They looked destined to reach the Final Four yet again, hitting Syracuse with 54-39 lead.
But the Orange pressed. Virginia’s sped-up play led to misses, which led to turnovers. Momentum shifted.
Richardson by the 3:30 mark had scored 14 of his 23 career-high points. He'd made five of his six field goals. He buried a series of 3s.
For the second time in three nights, Syracuse added another 180-degree twist to a heart-stopping plot.
They'd been projected to miss the tournament after an abysmal December. Instead, they steamrolled themselves out of the mess when 2016 hit.
Now, this underdog team has made it to the Final Four.
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina started the season looking like one of the best teams in the country. Did they play like it? Not always. Their offensive skills were flawless, but it could've been cancelled out by their passive defense.
Things changed in the ACC quarterfinal against the Panthers. "In that game, we realized we can play defense,'' sophomore guard Joel Berry explained.
The team was as infuriating as it was appealing this season. Coach Williams had been begging his team to get their D up to scratch. It wasn't until the Pittsburgh game that the team finally realised that defensive stops would allow them to get out on a break more quickly. Pitt coughed the ball over three times, and every time, UNC scored.
A game later, for the final 6:12 of the first half and the first 3:12 of the second, the span of Notre Dame’s 14 possessions, the Irish failed to score. The Tar Heels scored in 11 of the 14.
"Coach has reminded us several times that he's never had a championship team that hasn't been great defensively,''Marcus Paige said. “… That's why we've seen the change in defense.”
Well, that change propelled the Tar Heels straight into the Final Four.