When Ernie Johnson got to the names of the schools with the letter ‘n’ during the announcement of the at-large bids on the NCAA Tournament selection show, Trae Young was looking down to the ground with his hands on his head praying. Brady Manek, Jamuni McNeace, and others kept looking at each other as the patience of waiting to see if they made it reached a tipping point. A sense of nervousness and anxiety could be felt.
“Will Oklahoma make it?” Johnson said after it was announced that Ohio State was in the Big Dance.
“… Yes they will.”
Jamuni McNeace jumped with jubilation, Khadeem Lattin danced like he was Michael Jackson, and Trae Young, who could not bear to watch, clenched his fists in a Tiger Woods-esque manner.
The anxiety and nervousness turned to celebration and a sigh of relief that the Sooners’ slide did not cost them at a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was … I mean … words can’t describe. I was nervous. I was very anxious to see if our name was being called,” Trae Young said. “I’ve been very comfortable thoroughout this whole process until the last minute and a half. But once they called our name, all my emotions just let go. I’m very fortunate that they chose us. I think they did it right.”
“Definitely. It was stressful,” junior guard Christian James said. “They were kind of prolonging it a little bit, we was like, “come on, man, when is it coming?,” but then it finally popped up and it was a relief, a joy.”
The NCAA Tournament selection committee has seen its fair share of scrutiny for putting Oklahoma in, and others like in-state rival Oklahoma State out. Analysts among all the national media outlets have picked 7-seed Rhode Island emphatically, including Charles Barkley on the TBS broadcast of the selection show immediately after the announcement was made … right in front of Trae Young and his teammates as they watched to see where they would be headed.
“I would say it motivated us more,” James said. “It’s been a rocky season for us. I feel like it’s going to make us even closer. It’s going to motivate us to play even harder. I just want to get that done even more.”
“I know our team has a big chip on our shoulder. Me, personally, I have a tremendous chip on my shoulder. I’ll be ready to play,” Young said about the critics. “I hear a lot of things. Not a lot people think we should be in, which is fine. The people who make the decision that we should be and that’s what matters. I think we’ll have a tremendous chip on our shoulder. I don’t think that a lot of people not having us in is gonna affect us. We have to be ready to play.”
Oklahoma will be going up against an experienced Rhode Island team led by four seniors that won a game in the Big Dance a year ago, and pushed Oregon to the final buzzer who went on to the Final Four.
The Sooners, however, only have four members who have been in the NCAA Tournament. Jamuni McNeace was coming off his redshirt season, Matt Freeman had just arrived on campus three months earlier, and Rashard Odomes and Christian James (who played a role in Oklahoma’s Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M) were true freshman when Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler, and Isaiah Cousins led them to the Final Four.
Experience is thought to be a factor this time of the year, but how much?
Well, not much it all, according to the freshman phenom.
“This is the end of the season. I think you have all of the experience you need coming in,” Trae Young said at today’s press conference before the NCAA Tournament. “I mean, each team has played 30-plus games, so, this is — it’s not like it’s the beginning of the season.
(Rhode Island) is very good. Like I said, they’ve won tournament games recently so they know how to win in this environment, in this tournament. But we have some guys that have been to the Final Four two years ago and know how to win as well. So those guys are helping me and some of the other freshmen and sophomores, giving us advice on how to play in the tournament and what to expect. We got some veterans and so do they, and their veterans are really good, too.”
Rhode Island is led by senior point guard Jared Terrell–an Oklahoma State signee out of high school under the Travis Ford regime–who is averaging 17.2 points per game and hitting 3s at a 41.5 percent rate. Senior guard E.C. Matthews joins Terrell in the backcourt, and is their second leading scorer at 13.1 points a game.
The Rams present a similar matchup to what Oklahoma has faced this season. They start three guards (two extremely talented ones), a forward, and another power forward in a very guard-dominant offense.
It is the Big 12 style of offenses that have given them fits. They have struggled defending the three, and have allowed point guards to have their way. What is it going to take for them to take advantage of their second chance?
“Energy. Effort. The games that we lost, I feel that is what we were lacking,” James said. “If we bring that for 40 minutes, we’ll be fine.”