There are a number of reasons Oklahoma became the first team to clinch a Final Four berth on Saturday with a decisive, never-close 12-point victory over top-seeded Oregon. But of all those factors, one outweighs all the rest, combined. His name is Buddy Hield.
The Sooners' Player of the Year candidate has been as good as advertised this March, probably even better, which is crazy given all the hype he got pre-tourney. He's been scoring prolifically and efficiently in OU's four easy wins that sent the team to its first Final Four since 2002 and third since 1948. It's getting to the point where his misses are the biggest surprises of the game. Hield has been so good that people are starting to use the "M" word to describe his tournament play: Manning-esque.
No, not Peyton. Back in 1988, a lightly regarded Kansas team coached by Larry Brown and seeded No. 6 rolled its way through the regional, made the Final Four and cut down the nets, a chore they should have completed by standing on Manning's shoulders, just like they'd done all tournament. They're known to history as Danny and the Miracles. Can Buddy be next?
Let's see how Hield stacks up to Manning through the first four games.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma, 2016 NCAA tournament
1st round vs. No. 15 Cal State Bakersfield — 27 points
2nd round vs. No. 10 VCU — 36 points
Sweet 16 vs. No. 3 Texas A&M — 17 points
Elite Eight vs. No. Oregon — 37 points
Average ppg: 29.3 ppg
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Danny Manning, Kansas, 1988 NCAA tournament (first four games)
1st round vs. No. 11 Xavier — 24 points
2nd round vs. No. 14 Murray State — 29 points
Sweet 16 vs. 7 Vanderbilt — 38 points
Elite Eight vs. No. 4 Kanas State — 20 points
Average: 27.8 ppg
(Photo by Getty Images)
If Hield plays two more games at that average, he'll have the third-highest scoring average in NCAA tournament history. He's one of three players in the 64-team bracket era to average more than 25 points in the regular season and then make the Final Four. In short, dude's ballin'.
As for him and Manning, there are obvious differences between their runs:
1. Manning's KU team was seeded No. 6, so that run was certainly worthy of the "miracle" distinction. Hield's team, due in most part to him, was a No. 2 seed, so this run wasn't exactly out of the blue. Most projections, in fact, had Oklahoma coming out of the West
2. But if you look above at Manning's stats, you'll see they came against a run of mediocre seeds: No. 11, No. 14, No. 7 and No. 4 (that averages out to a No. 9 seed). Hield's Sooners had an easy first weekend (No. 15 and No. 10) but then easily handled the No. 3 and No. 1 teams in the West regional, neither of whom began or played the tournament like they deserved to be seeded anywhere else. (OU's average seed: No. 7.25).
3. There have been other great performances since Manning. Just off the top of my head: Glen Rice of Michigan in 1989, Christian Laettner of Duke in 1992, Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse in 2003, Dwyane Wade of Marquette in 2003 and Kemba Walker of UConn in 2011. (And more, I'm sure.) The difference is the help each had. Rice had Rumeal Robinson, Laettner had a whole team of college stars, Carmelo was Batman but needed his Robin in Gerry McNamara and Kemba Walker had Jeremy Lamb come out of his shell to push Connecticut along in that title year. Even Wade needed Travis Diener to bail him out in the first weekend so Marquette could get to the Final Four. So far, Hield has been the engine that makes OU start, go and cruise for two hours straight.
This is not to dismiss the contributions of teammates, but just as important as Hield's shooting, scoring and defense is the fact that he draws so much attention from defenders, thus freeing up his teammates. A prime example on Saturday was when OU guard Isaiah Cousins drilled what felt like a backbreaking 3 in the second half just as it seemed like Oregon could be on the verge of a comeback. Cousins is solid. He can shoot. But because Hield was near the sideline awaiting a pass, Oregon backed off Cousins, who drilled his 22-footer. You could feel the life drain out of the Ducks.
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
And obviously there's one key difference between Hield and Manning. Those '88 Jayhawks won it all. Oklahoma is still two games away. But if Hield keeps playing at a superstar level and his teammates continue to take advantage of their freedom, you might see a Buddy and the Miracles headline in about nine days.
Who did Manning beat to win the 1988 title? Oklahoma, of course. And if Hield and Oklahoma were to win it all, there's the possibility they'll have to beat Kansas in the Final Four. How poetic would that be?