One moment can change everything, turn a good team into a great one, turn a strong season into one that lands you in the Final Four. Oklahoma, Villanova, Syracuse and North Carolina each had that moment, when the realization hit that, hey, this could be special, that the road could indeed lead to the Final Four and, perhaps, a national title.
A rundown of the moments that helped each of these teams find their way to Houston:
The day Buddy decided to come back
On April 24, 2015, everything changed for Oklahoma. That day, Buddy Hield decided against entering the NBA draft. A projected first-round pick, he decided to come back for his senior season.
"You have to be smart," Hield said then. "You can't go in there and take a gamble and bury yourself. I just know the best decision was to come back and improve. That way when the time comes, I'll be ready."
That's the obvious answer to Oklahoma's journey to its first Final Four since 2002. Hield, now a projected NBA lottery pick, returned for another season.
But it's not just the fact he returned, but how he returned.
Last summer, Hield realized his draft prospects and his team's goals were both tied to the improvement he'd make between last season and this season.
Within that six-month gap between 2014-15 and 2015-16, Hield sculpted himself into a more consistent player with better range.
Last season, Hield was a 41 percent shooter from the field. He made a solid 36 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Consider his last four games of 2014-15, though.
Starting with a loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament, Hield finished 9-for-40 from the 3-point line in his final four games of last season. In Oklahoma's Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State a season ago, Hield finished 3-for-10 from beyond the arc.
His switch from pro prospect to offseason workhorse prepping for his final season, however, gave Oklahoma the missing piece to its Final Four hopes.
The Sooners not only needed Hield to return, they needed him to improve and make himself a more reliable option.
And he did.
Hield raised his 3-point rate nearly 10 percentage points (46 percent) this season. He has made 64 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 56 percent in 2014-15, according to hoop-math.com research. He has made 55 percent of his shots inside the arc this season (47 percent last season).
That's why an Oklahoma team that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament during Hield's freshman and sophomore seasons and failed to move past the Sweet 16 last season will play in the Final Four in Houston next week.
Hield made tremendous strides in his offensive game and the entire program benefited from his offseason decision and determination.
"We had a bad taste in our mouth last spring, and we wanted to work hard," Hield said after Saturday's win over Oregon, the victory that earned his week's trip to Houston and the Final Four. "As soon as we came back the next week, next day we were in the gym working out. Guys really wanted to get to this point. So we really worked hard. And our coaching staff was on us hard, and Coach [Lon Kruger] was always on us seniors. So hats off to the senior class for leading us. Whether it was me scoring points or Isaiah [Cousins] initiating the offense or Ryan [Spangler] doing the dirty work, we all had a part in doing this. So I'm just happy for our leadership that brought us this far."
-- Myron Medcalf
A lesson learned in a loss
Late in Villanova's win over Kansas, Ryan Arcidiacono had a flashback to the Wildcats' loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament championship game.
A slow defensive rotation had the Wildcats out of place when they allowed the game-winning basket. In a similar situation against Kansas, Nova needed a stop and Arcidiacono's command served as a reminder to everyone in the huddle of what happened in the loss to the Hall.
"He said, 'Don't help,'" center Daniel Ochefu said. "It was very clear, we lost the game because of that and this is not going to happen again."
Villanova players agreed, they forged to become a Final Four team not just from their many big wins en route to a Big East regular-season title, but from the lessons learned in that 69-67 loss to Seton Hall.
"It was a heartbreaker of a game," guard Josh Hart said, "but I'll take a heartbreaker to have this feeling" of reaching the Final Four.
It helped in the micro sense, of helping a Nova team that won its opening three games of the NCAA tournament by an average of 20 points, to stay focused in a close game against the Jayhawks.
It was also the game -- more so than their 78-55 loss to Oklahoma -- that brought their big-picture goals into focus. It served as a reminder of how they needed to play to advance in March.
It's true that after shooting 4-of-32 from 3-point range against the Sooners that the Wildcats knew they had to become a more discerning in their shot selection. But that loss didn't sting the way falling to the Pirates did.
"It was at the end of the year, we were playing our best basketball and then we slipped," Arcidiacono said.
That's how it happens in March. An off night, a lethargic start, and the season can abruptly end.
Villanova looked at how it allowed Seton Hall to be the aggressor early and trailed by 11 at halftime. Although they took some pride in rallying from a 14-point deficit, the Wildcats knew they shouldn't have allowed themselves to get down so much in the first place.
Nova coach Jay Wright said he didn't review the entire game with his team. He just focused in on the opening minutes to get his point across.
"Let's just look at us, look at our stances, look at our eyes, look at our aggressiveness," Wright said. "We just said -- I showed them maybe three or four clips, and I said, 'Do I have to show you any more?' They all just said, 'Nope.' I said that can't happen to us again. If it happens again, we're going home."
Instead, the Wildcats are headed to Houston.
-- C.L. Brown
They were done so many times, until they weren't
Malachi Richardson had something he wanted to say.
He didn't need to say it, not in the slightest. The facts of the case had already been entered into evidence. He wanted to say it, though, wanted to push the giddy reality out of his lungs with such force that thousands of cheering Syracuse fans and thousands of groaning Virginia fans had no choice but to hear him, somehow, over the din of their own noise.
They can't guard me!
It was then, and only then, that it happened: The moment the idea of Syracuse -- 13-loss, 10th-seeded Syracuse -- at the Final Four became real.
"I was hot," Richardson said. "And whoever they had in front of me couldn't stay in front of me."
"Whoever" was Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC defensive player of year. "They" were the Virginia Cavaliers, one of the nation's best defensive teams three years running, the Midwest region's No. 1 seed, a team that had bludgeoned the Orange into 21 first-half points and that had a mere six in-game minutes before Richardson's announcement, with 9:30 left to play, led the game 54-39. It was over, or it felt over, anyway, as UVa appeared destined to finally cap three years of peerless ACC excellence with a richly deserved Final Four.
Then Syracuse began to press, and Virginia began to lose its way, and sped-up play led to misses, and misses became turnovers, and all of sudden the momentum was shifting in the other direction, and that's when Richardson took over.
By the 3:30 mark, Richardson had scored 14 of his career-high 23 points. He had made five of his six field goals. He had buried a series of 3s -- pull-ups and step-backs, guarded and ill-advised -- and buried them, one after the other, until the Cavaliers sent Brogdon to try to clean up the mess.
For the second time in three nights, the 2015-16 Syracuse Orange had added yet another remarkable 180-degree twist to a non-stop thrill ride of a plot.
It began with lights-out, back-to-back wins over UConn and Texas A&M in November; dipped with the NCAA's revision of Jim Boeheim's suspension -- scheduled first for the first half of ACC play, then moved up to "asap" -- and Boeheim's month-long separation from his team in December, and a 4-5 slump that played out in his absence; revived in 8-2 stretch upon his return; peaked in a road win at Duke in that stretch; dove in a 1-5 limp to the ACC finish.
The Orange were widely projected to miss the tournament. Instead, they earned a No. 10 seed. Now, they're going to the Final Four.
"This has been a very interesting year," guard Trevor Cooney said Sunday night.
Another thing Syracuse didn't need to verbalize. Another fact the recent past had already spelled out in perfect clarity.
Sometimes, though, saying something can make it real.
-- Eamonn Brennan
So, we can play defense, huh?
Roy Williams was plotting the level of his halftime screed, one that likely would have included at least a few dadgums, when his North Carolina team took the fury right out of him.
The Tar Heels stitched together a 10-0 run in the final 3:43 of the first half of their ACC tournament game against Pittsburgh, turning the game as well as the coach's halftime speech on its ear.
It wasn't the 10 part that pleased Williams.
It was the 0.
From the day this college basketball season debuted, North Carolina has looked like one of the best -- if not the best -- teams in the country. The Tar Heels just didn't always play like it, their beautiful offensive skills all but negated by defensive passivity that too often bordered on complete disinterest.
That changed in that ACC quarterfinal against the Panthers. And on that day, 17 days before they cut the East Region nets down in Philadelphia, the Tar Heels became a Final Four team.
"In that game, we realized we can play defense,'' sophomore guard Joel Berry said.
That it took so long is why Carolina has been as vexing as it has been appealing this season. Williams spent the better part of this season beseeching his team to play more D. The players just figured they could outscore everyone.
Finally, with that Pitt game, the Tar Heels realized the two weren't mutually exclusive. The defensive stops allowed a team that loves to get out on the break to get there even more quickly. Pitt not only failed to score on its last six possessions, it coughed the ball up three times and managed a second shot on only its other three chances. Every single time North Carolina got the ball back, it scored.
A game later, North Carolina one-upped itself. For the final 6:12 of the first half and the first 3:12 of the second, a span of 14 possessions, Notre Dame failed to score in its tourney semifinal. The Tar Heels, meantime, scored in 11 of the 14, a 24-0 run that showed how frighteningly and Final Four-worthy UNC is when it combines offense with defense.
"Coach has reminded us several times that he's never had a championship team that hasn't been great defensively,'' Marcus Paige said. "I think that hit home with us because that's where we want to be. If that's what we need to do to get there, then I think that's why we've seen the change in our defense.''
-- Dana O'Neil