After finishing the season 4-11, including losses in eight of their last 10 games, the NCAA Tournament selection committee granted the Oklahoma Sooners a second chance.
“This group’s obviously played much better basketball than we did in the last month, no question about that,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said after the field was announced. “I think the key, too, with what Mike Shepherd and Joe Castiglione, the originators of the schedule, that was huge. These guys had to win games, but to play those games in December and win those is why we’re in the tournament.
“And I think those are the ground rules going in. (Mike Shepherd) always done a good job of anticipating and trying to put together the RPI teams that need to be played, and obviously we never shied away from strong schedules in non-conference. I think in this case, probably a bigger example of that than is typical because we didn’t play well the next month. But this team can. Again, we’re tied pretty closely to that. We got to try to change that, defend a little better, rebound a little better and do all the other things a little bit better, too.”
Lon Kruger’s bunch made the Big Dance as a 10-seed in the Midwest regional. They started the season 14-2 before the slide, and boast the most wins against AP top-25 opponents (six) and AP top-10 opponents (four). The Sooners have six quadrant one wins, and have the 33rd most difficult schedule in the country (second most difficult according to ESPN’s College Basketball Index). Their start ended up being better than the fall, and Lon Kruger and co. still get a chance to compete for a National Championship.
“Obviously any time you get to play in the tournament you’re delighted,” Kruger said. “A long year, and we’ve had the extremes all in one season, very good play to less than that by a lot. But excited for the guys …”
The Sooners are in the tournament a year after going 11-20. They last made the NCAA Tournament in the 2015-2016 season when Buddy Hield led them to the Final Four. This will be Lon Kruger’s fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years during his time at Oklahoma, and third in the last four.
“It was a little nervewracking. Up there just looking, N, O, OK here we go. It was nerve-wracking for sure,” senior Khadeem Latting said. “I’m glad that we got to do it my senior year. I’m glad we’re in the tournament. But we’re not satisfied with that. We just need to be ready, ready for a good Rhode Island team.”
Oklahoma is paired with 7-seed Rhode Island for their opening round game Thursday in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, and Auburn are the top seeds in the Midwest Region, but the Sooners will not get to see any other team unless they take care of game one.
“It feels amazing,” freshman Trae Young said about making the tournament. “Like Khadeem said, that’s how you want to end your season, being in the tournament with a chance to win it all. Everybody’s 0-0 now. The first team to win six is going to be champions, so we’ve just got to focus on Rhode Island. They’re a very good team. They won their conference this year, lost in the championship. They’re a very good team. We’ve got a lot of respect for them. We’ve got to be ready to play.”
— Kegan Reneau (@KeganReneau) March 11, 2018