Tahlequah Daily Press

March 17, 2014

Sooners land No. 5 seed in NCAA tournament

Oklahoma will open NCAA tournament play against No. 12 North Dakota State in Spokane on Thursday


— The buzz was different on the floor of Lloyd Noble Center late Sunday afternoon. No. 17 Oklahoma had just wrapped up its team banquet a few minutes earlier. When and where it was playing next was the only issue remaining.

The announcement came relatively quick. The Sooners (23-9) received the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament’s west region. They face No. 12 seed North Dakota State (25-6) at 6:27 p.m. Thursday at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena in Spokane, Wash. The game will be televised on truTV.

A roar went over the crowd when OU’s slot was announced, but it wasn’t the sense of joyous relief OU experienced a year ago on Selection Sunday.

Even the players were subdued.

“This year, we kind of knew we were going to make the tournament,” OU forward Cameron Clark said. “We’re trying to take the next step. We’ll focus on the first game and do what we need to do to get this win.”

OU's mindset was on display even on a celebratory day like Sunday.

College basketball teams around the country gather in front of television screens as the field of 68 is revealed.

Most know whether they’re not getting in. Others are praying somehow, someway, the NCAA tournament selection committee bought their arguments. Those are the teams — the ones on the “bubble” — that experience true agony on a day like Sunday. OU experienced it a year ago.

A select group of about 30 or so were in the Sooners’ shoes Sunday. There was not anything to sweat. Just a lot of waiting around to see where and when and against which team.

The lack of stress was noticeable.

“It was much better sitting there and waiting to see who the opponent is going to be and the location as opposed to wondering if your name is going to be called,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “That’s a credit to these guys. They’ve earned this and they’ve made the progress necessary. I know they’ll be excited about lining up and working to get a better result than we did a year ago.”

The Bison had their dance card punched the old fashion way. They beat Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne in the Summit League tournament title game last Tuesday. The conference tournament title was part of a hot streak that brought 12 wins in their final 13 games.

Kruger said he knows North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips. No shock there. Kruger, who is leading a team to the NCAA tournament for the 15th time, runs into few strangers in the coaching ranks.

“Couldn’t tell you anything specifically,” he said. “I watched their team play a little bit within the Summit League last year and this year. I know they've played really good basketball.”

OU’s coaching staff began dissecting the Bison Sunday night. The game plan will start taking shape when practice resumes today.

The first practice after the NCAA tournament bracket is released should be different. It's then when teams decided whether or not getting in the field of 68 is good enough or is advancing the goal.

The Sooners weren’t able to flip that switch in March of 2013. It had been four very long years since it had played in the NCAA tournament. Getting to the Big Dance was enough.

That’s no longer the case. Selection Sunday was different for OU. It was part of the privileged which did all the required work in the regular season to relax Sunday.

Now it has to validate itself all over again and OU knows it.

“We're a hungry team,” OU guard Buddy Hield said. “We’re trying to get a postseason win because I haven't won in the postseason. Cam as well. Just trying to set the tone in starting a new chapter.”

OU basketball notebook

Clark named team MVP:
Prior to the NCAA tournament selection show, Oklahoma held its team banquet on the Lloyd Noble Center floor. Players were recognized for many awards, but senior forward Cameron Clark took home the biggest prize — most valuable player.

“That was great. All my teammates voted for me. It’s just a great feeling,” said Clark, who averaged 15.3 points a game this season. “I invested time with the coaching staff. That helped me develop as a player. My teammates pushed me to be a leader. Fortunately I got the MVP. I’m thankful to my teammates and my coaching staff.”

The players also presented OU coach Lon Kruger with a plaque commemorating the Associated Press Big 12 Coach of the Year he received last week.

Solid against the field: One of the reasons OU (23-9) received a No. 5 seed was its schedule strength. Turns out 16 of its 34 games were against teams that are in the NCAA tournament field.

OU went 10-6 in those games. Thirteen of them were against the six other Big 12 teams — Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Texas and Baylor — that made the field. The Big 12’s seven berths were the most of any league.

“Speaks pretty well. It’s been a great league. Eighteen times you line up and you know if you don’t play well you’re going to get beat because you’re playing against good players,” Kruger said.

The Sooners non-conference schedule featured three NCAA tournament teams — Michigan State, Mercer and Tulsa. OU lost to the Spartans in November in New York. It beat Mercer and Tulsa at Lloyd Noble Center.

Big 12 heavy region: The good news for OU is that it’s done playing Big 12 Conference teams for a while. The bad news: advancing could mean facing more of them.

Two other Big 12 teams join OU in the west region. Oklahoma State is the No. 9 seed and Baylor is the No. 6.

Both the Sooners and Cowboys would have to win two games each to set up a third edition of Bedlam. This would be in Anaheim, Calif.

Baylor would have to reach the Elite Eight before it could potentially bump into its conference brethren. 

Back so soon: Going to Spokane, Wash., will be a return trip for sophomore forward Ryan Spangler. He played at Gonzaga, which is located in Spokane, in the 2011-12 season. Spangler, who is a Tuttle native, transferred to OU following that season.

“I think it’s good. I’ll be able to show everybody where to eat I think,” Spangler joked. “I think we’ll have a lot of supporters there. It’s a chance for us to get some more wins. Like coach has been saying, one tournament at a time. This is a two-game tournament and we’re trying to win it.”

Deja vu?: Should OU get by North Dakota State on Thursday, a possible third-round matchup with San Diego State lurks on Saturday.

The Aztecs, who are the west region’s No. 3 seed, hung a 70-55 loss on the Sooners in the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament in Philadelphia.