After a long and very eventful regular season, Oklahoma (19-13) somehow finds itself as a nine-seed in the South region of the NCAA Tournament. The Sooners will face eight-seed Ole Miss (20-12) in the first round on Thursday.
Ole Miss and Oklahoma have four common opponents: Iowa State swept the Sooners and beat Ole Miss as part of the Big 12 – SEC Challenge. Baylor also swept Oklahoma but lost to the Rebels in a neutral site game as part of the Emerald Coast Classic, early in the season. Florida split the two opponents, losing to Oklahoma in the Bahamas, but beating the Rebels in Gainesville. Lastly, Vanderbilt lost to the Rebels at home and lost to the Sooners in Norman.
Ole Miss seems to be as even of a matchup as the Sooners could have drawn for regional play. Separated by just a spot in the NET ratings (Oklahoma No. 36 and Ole Miss No. 37), the teams have almost no advantage against each other on paper.
As for coaching, the advantage goes to the Sooners. In Lon Kruger’s eight years as Oklahoma’s head coach, he has taken the Sooners to the NCAA Tournament six times. This season marks Kruger’s 20th Tournament appearance with Oklahoma being the fifth school he has led to the Big Dance.
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis is in his first season as the Rebels’ head coach. Prior to this season, Davis held the same position at Middle Tennessee State where he led the Blue Raiders to three NCAA Tournament appearances over 16 years. Davis also made appearances in back to back seasons while coaching at Idaho (1988-89 and 1989-90).
The Rebels have three players averaging double-digit points, just as the Sooners. Junior guard, Breein Tyree leads the offense for the Rebels, averaging 18.1 points per game. His backcourt partner, senior, Terence Davis averages 15.1 points per game. Sophomore guard, Devonte Shuler averages 10.2 points per game. The guard trio will test the Sooners on the perimeter defensively as they shoot a combined average of 38.3 percent from beyond the arc. If they cannot find an open shot, they will make sure they find someone who does as the trio also accounts for 85 percent of Ole Miss’s assists. Davis will be the key player as he leads the team in assists and rebounds while averaging over 15 points a game.
To counter, the Sooners will trot out an equally dynamic trio in Kristian Doolittle, Brady Manek and Christian James.
Doolittle, the 2018-19 Big 12 most improved player averaged 11.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game this season including a season high 24 points in a win over then ranked No. 25 TCU, sealing the game with a layup with under 10-seconds remaining. His play has steadily progressed despite the Sooners peaks and valleys throughout the season. The junior forward can play an intricate part in the Sooners offense if scoring begins to stall.
Manek avoided a sophomore slump, improving upon an above average freshman campaign. His three-point proficiency and ability to spread the floor on both ends allow the Sooners to operate more freely when he is on the floor. Averaging 12 points and just over 6 rebounds per game and shooting 35 percent from deep, look for Kruger to call Manek’s number early and often if Manek gets hot.
James has never fully developed into the star Sooner fans thought he would be when Oklahoma made a Final Four run in 2016. Nonetheless, James has stayed the course and led the Sooners in scoring this season. Averaging 14.4 points per game and hauling in 6.3 rebounds per game, James will be the key that opens the door to the second round for the Sooners. Although it seems as if he vanishes as soon as the stage becomes bigger and brighter, James may just be due for a performance all Sooner fans want to see before he heads to the next level.