By JOHN SHINN
PHILADELPHIA — The NCAA tournament provides a month-long stage most college basketball players dream of taking. From the third week in March through the first week in April, the nation is fixated on Cinderella stories and Final Four hopefuls and the players who take starring roles as the drama plays out.
The intense focus provides every player in the 68-team field with a chance to elevate his profile in a way the regular season cannot. Generations of players have used to the tournament to go from unknown to intriguing in eyes of NBA teams.
“That’s how it is,” OU senior forward Romero Osby said. “Seems like every year there’s a senior or a guy who was on the verge of making that kind of jump. Then they have a good tournament or his team gets in the tournament and plays well, and next thing you know, they’re a top 30 pick (in the NBA draft) or something like that.”
For Osby, a game like today’s between the 10th-seeded Sooners (20-11) and seventh-seeded San Diego State (22-10) in the NCAA tournament’s South Region at Wells Fargo Center could serve as the catapult to a bright professional future.
There’s no doubt who OU’s best player has been this season. Osby enters tonight’s game averaging a team-best 15.8 points and 7.0 rebounds a game.
“If Osby is not the best player in the Big 12, I don’t want to play the team that has the best player in the Big 12,” San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher said Thursday. “He’s really, really good. He knows how to play. I read a lot about him, and he seems like the kind of player that every coach would love to have. His demeanor, what he says, what’s important. He’s a hard guard. He’s a very difficult guy to guard. He can put it to the floor, he can shoot it on you facing you to 18, 20 feet. He gets to the free-throw line.”
Truth be told, Osby has been the catalyst for virtually everything that has gone well for OU this season. He’s not only its best player, he’s the Sooners’ hardest worker and their unquestioned leader.
He’s also been the guy who deserves the most on-the-floor credit for getting the Sooners’ back to this level. OU has received meaningful contributions from throughout its roster.
However, Osby has been the constant throughout.
“Literally since last year, Romero has not had a bad practice. He’s not come to practice without total 100 percent effort, total focus, total investment, and when that happens out of your best player, other guys just naturally buy in. We work hard at that, the communication part of it,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We talk to Romero a lot about what it’s going to take and what he needs from us to be that type of a leader. But he’s not wavered; he’s stepped up. I think every stop along the way it takes your better players being totally invested, totally genuine about it, team-first attitude, all of that. It really comes from the leadership among the players, and Romero has been absolutely terrific.”
The Sooners will play three freshmen — guards Buddy Hield, Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins — today. All of them have given OU a lift this season. They credit Osby for showing them how you have to prepare to play at this level.
If they wanted to talk, Osby would listen. If they wanted to learn, Osby taught.
“He’s the mentor, the role model, the big brother. He’s been consistent the whole way. He’s been that voice for us throughout the whole year,” Hornbeak said.
Those characteristics have value at the professional level. Kruger, who spent 2 1/2 seasons as an NBA head coach, believes Osby will get his opportunity to play in the NBA at some point. He might have to prove himself in Europe for a year or two or spend some time in the developmental league before it happens, but it’s going to happen.
Osby can hasten the process with his performance today. The NCAA tournament has always been when college basketball’s best players display their abilities against the best in the college game.
The Sooners are finally back in the showcase event. Osby helped put them there and has the opportunity to certify himself as an elite player and launch himself into a future beyond college basketball.