Buddy Hield’s results have usually caught up with his imagination.
This season has surpassed even his wildest dreams as Oklahoma heads to the Final Four.
The senior guard considered leaving for the NBA last year, but returned to school to improve his game and has been nearly unstoppable. He’s second in the nation in scoring and averaging 29.3 points in the NCAA Tournament heading into the national semifinal Saturday against Villanova.
Hield said when he came back to Oklahoma, he knew he had to average at least 17 points.
“Maybe 19, 20 points,” he said. “To average 25 on a nightly basis is kind of tough to do. Everybody’s coming at you, and you’ve still got to put up huge numbers. It’s a blessing.”
Oklahoma’s run to the Final Four reassured Hield that he made the right decision. The Sooners are rolling and the Bahamas native is a projected NBA lottery pick after being considered a late first-round or early second-round pick a year ago.
“I can’t be more happy than this,” he said.
Oklahoma assistant coach Chris Crutchfield said Hield has improved because he put in the time.
“He’s been special because he’s worked harder,” Crutchfield said. “His drive has been way more than anybody else I’ve coached.”
Hield shoots 46.5 percent and leads the nation with 4.1 3-pointers per game. He has been at his best in key moments. He scored 46 points at Kansas and made seven of his eight 3-pointers in the second half on his way to 32 points against LSU. Hield hit a game-winning 3-pointer against Texas and scored 39 points in the Big 12 tournament against Iowa State.
In the NCAA Tournament, he’s scored big against VCU and Oregon. A repeat against Villanova could lift his team to the title game Monday against the winner of the North Carolina-Syracuse semifinal.
“A lot of times you talk about guys, especially good players, who have ‘it,’ ” Crutchfield said. “You can’t put a tag on it.”
Hield was mostly a slasher as a freshman, when he started about half of Oklahoma’s games. He worked on his mechanics and became more of a spot-up shooter as a sophomore.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said Hield was persistent with the mental game.
“After every practice — and it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but no, it was after every practice — ‘Coach, what do I need to work on? What do I need to do?’ ” Kruger said.
Hield learned to better balance his shooting and attacking during the second half of his junior year and was named Big 12 player of the year. That’s when he thought it might be time to head to the NBA. After listening to evaluators, he stayed.
“I know I needed to improve, but I wanted to go so badly,” he said. “I was just caught up in the moment, and I saw friends going, and I thought, ‘OK, it’s your turn, too.’ But I had to be patient.”
Hield improved his dribble in traffic, became a stronger finisher at the rim, improved his movement away from the ball and learned to create more space when closely covered. He further improved his shot.
“A lot of times, young people go in the gym and do the things they’re most comfortable doing,” Kruger said. “Players that keep getting better are going to the gym and working on things that they’re less comfortable doing.”
Hield was named conference player of the year again and has continued to elevate his game as defenses tried to find new ways to slow him down.
Kruger said the guard’s game has even changed in the last month, noting that Hield is separating more from defenders without the ball by changing pace and direction.
“He’s got a good feel for what he needs to do to get open,” Kruger said.
Men’s Final Four
3:09 p.m: Villanova (33-5) vs. Oklahoma (29-7), TBS, 950-AM
5:40 p.m.: North Carolina (32-6) vs. Syracuse (23-13), TBS, 950-AM