Villanova knows firsthand about Sooners' strengths

VILLANOVA HAS has lost five games. Four were by a combined 26 points, including an overtimer. The other was by 23. So which one do you suppose most folks remember, even though it happened nearly four months ago?

Maybe that's because it happened against the team the Wildcats are playing next.

"It's the most enjoyment I've ever had getting my butt kicked," is how coach Jay Wright described that 78-55 loss to Oklahoma in Hawaii on Dec. 7. "Every time there was a timeout, they'd show five guys who survived Pearl Harbor. They're like 90 years old. And everyone's clapping, because you feel so good for them.

"Of course you just wanted to forget the rest of it."

Villanova was ranked ninth that day, Oklahoma seventh. The Wildcats were favored by five. Now they're both No. 2 seeds that took out ones in their respective regional finals. OU beat Oregon by 12 in the West. Villanova eliminated top-ranked Kansas, a team OU had lost to twice, by five in the South. The Wildcats are favored by two point in Saturday night's national semifinal rematch in Houston by the folks who do that sort of thing for a living.

For whatever that means.

"That (first) game plays into this a lot," Wright said. "I think (having this matchup again) helps us. One of the challenges when you get to this point is, you've won four big-time games, usually, you're feeling really good about yourself, then you spend a week with everyone telling you how great you are. You think you're going to beat whoever you play. And you have to play a team that waxed us. They're not stupid. A player thinks about what a player thinks about. I think that will help us eliminate the distractions. They know how good (the Sooners) are.

"If they hadn't played them before, everyone would be saying, 'Buddy Hield, Buddy Hield.' We got waxed by (Isaiah) Cousins and (Jordan) Woodard. So we don't have to tell our guys about them.

"It's a whole other level. It really is. Going from (final) eight to four, I think that's the hardest (jump) to do, with everything that's going on. It's all good, but . . . I learned it the hard way last time."

That would be 2009, when the Wildcats lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in Detroit. The Tar Heels, the only No. 1 seed to make it this far, will face Syracuse in the second half of Saturday's doubleheader.

Hield averages 25 per. He had 37 against Texas A&M in a 14-point Sweet 16 win. In Hawaii he had 18, on 6-for-17 shooting. But Cousins had 18, going 4-for-4 from the arc. Dinjiyl Walker, who averages 3.5, had 11, including three triples. The Sooners were 14-for-26 from deep. Villanova was 4-for-32. No Wildcat scored more than 10. They only made four treys against Kansas, on 16 attempts. But they held the Jayhawks to 59. It makes a difference.

"Basically, they all played well except Buddy Hield," said senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono. "And we know how much better they've gotten throughout the season. We know at any point they can go off. But I think we're a lot better.

"That game showed everyone we weren't anything yet. I think we're really a completely different team."

They've watched the tape, which doesn't fib.

"They had it rolling," Arcidiacono said. "Coach Wright wasn't there. Just the players and a couple of assistant coaches. Man, we just weren't even there. We were shooting threes all over the place. We weren't sharing the ball. No one really had a commitment to the defensive game plan. You can definitely learn some things from it.

"It's bad when I made half of (the threes). I was putting them up . . . Against Kansas, we were connected. Even when it seemed like everything was going in their favor (up five with 10 minutes left). There's never really been a panic part of this team. They didn't get many easy looks. Everything else was contested."

The Wildcats likely will use several guys on Hield. Junior forward Josh Hart probably gets the first crack at the potential national player of the year. Redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges, who's 6-7 with a huge wingspan, should have his turn, too. He's been getting more and more minutes, mostly for his defensive contributions. He had five steals against the Jayhawks. But it has to be a group effort, against someone who can make them from just about anywhere over anybody.

"I'm not going to come out and say I'm going to shut Buddy Hield down," Hart said. "It's about those four other guys behind me. Everybody killed us out there. They're talented. When you get this deep in the tournament, every team's like that. You can't go in saying, 'If we shut him down, we're good.' We've seen how the rest of them can have huge nights."

So what kind of review would he give to the footage from Hawaii?

"We all wanted to get it off the TV," Hart said. "It was as bad as it seemed (at the time). It might have been worse. Everything was wrong. Hopefully we didn't watch too much of it."

This team hasn't been afraid of the moment. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that the Wildcats lost in the second round the last two years as a top-two seed. As Wright said, they've already failed. So there was no need to fear it anymore. They'd been through it. Now they've made it to the ultimate stage. By this point, can anything or anyone be too daunting for them?

"That's why you don't try to think about it," Hart said. "It's something you grew up watching. It's a special moment for everyone who steps out on the court. It's a great accomplishment. But we know we're not done yet . . . It's a good problem to have."

And it's a prize most kids only get one shot at. If they even get that.

"When you're 18 to 22 years old, it's hard," Wright said. "I think it got to me last time as a coach. Even though I talked to some great coaches, and they gave me some great advice that worked, there were other things that hit me. As people out there will tell you, there's a million things. It was too much. There's so much fun to have, I wanted to let them enjoy it."

The reality is, there's only one way to truly do that.

So if the Wildcats are still playing on Monday, which Oklahoma game do you think would be remembered forever?


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn