Sunday, September 23rd, 2018 am30 9:39am

Final Four game previews: Oklahoma-Villanova, North Carolina-Syracuse

HOUSTON – Almost four months ago, when this college basketball season was still brand new, Oklahoma defeated Villanova in front of a smattering of fans in a gym called Bloch Arena in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The then-seventh-ranked Sooners used 14 3-pointers to defeat the then-ninth-ranked Wildcats, 78-55, in the Pearl Harbor Invitational. The game tipped off early in the afternoon and had the feel of a glorified summer league matchup.

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Now the scene and the scenario shift dramatically as Oklahoma and Villanova meet again in a national semifinal on Saturday at NRG Stadium, the NFL Houston Texans‘ home with a seating capacity of more than 70,000. The rankings or tournament seeds don’t matter anymore. All that matters is the chance for either the Sooners or Wildcats to survive and advance to Monday’s national championship game.

But Villanova coach Jay Wright said his team has kept that loss to the Sooners in mind all season.

“I think we’ve become a team closer to the team that we saw in Hawaii, the Oklahoma team,” Wright said. “As soon as that game started, we could see these guys are battling defensively, connected defensively, they share the ball offensively and they have great shot selection. We were not good in any of those four areas at that time. We always used that game and respect for Oklahoma to keep trying to improve.”

Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said he too went back to the Pearl Harbor Invitational game in preparation to face the Wildcats. But Kruger doesn’t look at his team’s victory the same way as Wright views the loss.

“They didn’t make shots and we did,” Kruger said. “We watched film of that game and I was hoping to see that we were just better. That wasn’t the case.”

Saturday’s second semifinal also features two teams that have seen each other before. In fact, ACC foes North Carolina and Syracuse met twice in conference play with the Tar Heels sweeping those contests.

When asked about the difficulty of beating a team for the third time in the same season, North Carolina coach Roy Williams gave a frank answer, straying from old coaching clichés.

“If you’re better than me, you can probably beat me 20 times,” Williams said. “The Syracuse games, the games went right down to the wire. Both games within the last three or four minutes, especially at our place.”

In other words, Williams doesn’t think his team’s 11-point win at Syracuse or the Tar Heels’ five-point win at home will affect Saturday’s game.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said the benefit of playing North Carolina twice already this season is knowing what to expect. Beyond that, he said now is not the time to try to experiment with how to play the Tar Heels.

“We played pretty well in both games, and still couldn’t win,” Boeheim said. “We just try to do what we do better.”

Hield wins Oscar Robertson Trophy

A day after Michigan State senior guard Denzel Valentine was named the Associated Press Player of the Year, his Oklahoma counterpart evened the score.

Sooners senior guard Buddy Hield sat next to hoops legend Oscar Robertson as he received the United States Basketball Writers Association Oscar Robertson Trophy as the college basketball player of the year.

Hield, who enters Saturday’s national semifinal against Villanova averaging 25.4 points per game this season, said he’s not counting how many player of the year trophies he collects. The next game has the Oklahoma guard’s full attention.

“I’m just focused on the game,” Hield said. “I’m just locked in right now.”

Wright reflects on Villanova’s 1985 crown

During his Friday press conference, Villanova coach Jay Wright described where he was when coach Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats won the school’s only national championship in 1985.

Wright was an assistant coach and the assistant intramural director at University of Rochester in New York. He said he attended the Final Four semifinals in Lexington, Kentucky, but had to return to Rochester to run an intramural floor hockey competition. After finishing his intramural duties, Wright went to the women’s soccer coach’s house and sat on the floor to watch eighth-seeded Villanova defeat No. 1-seed Georgetown in the championship game.

“That was probably the most inspirational moment of my coaching career,” Wright said. “To see a team make a dream come true like that and overachieve, it was magical. You say as a coach I would love to be able to do that.”

Wright said he has regular conversations with Massimino, but his mind always returns to the 1985 championship.

“I think about it every day,” Wright said. “I talked to Coach Massimino 10 minutes ago. Every time I talk to him that’s what I think about.”

Williams has decades of Final Four experience

While many of the questions in Friday’s press conferences surrounded the teams’ different approaches to handling the Final Four environment, North Carolina coach Roy Williams had a wealth of experience to inform him. One of his reference points came from being an assistant coach on Tar Heels legend Dean Smith’s staff for back-to-back Final Fours in 1981 and 1982.

Williams explained that North Carolina stayed well away from the Final Four hoopla in 1981 in Philadelphia and ultimately lost in the championship game against Indiana.

“In ’82 we were fortunate enough to get back and playing in New Orleans,” Williams said. “We’re trying to discuss where we’re going to stay. I said, ‘Coach, let’s stay in downtown New Orleans. Let them realize we’re in the mix of the Final Four. It didn’t work last year.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Let’s try that and see if it works.’ We won it. That’s one of two or three things I ever gave Coach Smith in 10 years.”

Final Four coaches

The four head coaches in Houston this weekend have a combined 17 Final Four berths.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams leads the group as he’s making his eighth Final Four appearance as a head coach and has won two national championships (2005 and 2009). Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who is making his fifth Final Four trip, is the only other coach at the Final Four with a national title on his resume as the Orange won it in 2003. Villanova coach Jay Wright and Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger have a pair of Final Four appearances apiece.

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