Oklahoma basketball: Sooners in danger of falling to dreaded 8-9 NCAA line

LUBBOCK, TX - FEBRUARY 13: Trae Young /

The ideal situation for this stage of the season is for a team to be playing well, posting wins and peaking so it can carry that momentum into the postseason. Oklahoma basketball is the antithesis of that right now.

The Sooners are spinning their wheels in the month of February. They have yet to win a game in four February outings and are losers of seven of their last nine games. They have gone from a 14-2 record a month ago to 16-9 currently.

What once looked like a near certain top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, with college basketball’s best player leading the charge, has quickly become an exercise of holding on for dear life and hoping not to slip to the dreaded 8-9 line in the tournament bracket, or worse.

In Lon Kruger’s seven seasons at Oklahoma – which, incidentally, is as long as he has stayed at any one institution in 32 years as a college head coach – he has taken four Sooner teams to the NCAA Tournament. OU did not make it into postseason play a year ago, but barring a complete catastrophe, like losing all six of its remaining regular-season games, the Sooners should have no trouble earning a spot in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.

Making the tournament field is one thing, but to go from a projected two seed, which is where ESPN’s “Bracketology” mastermind Joe Lunardi had Oklahoma just a month ago, to a 9,10, 11 or even 12 seed is hardly something to celebrate. Your chances of making it to the first weekend are greatly diminished if you are team seeded below the nine line in the bracket.

That is exactly where the Sooners are headed if they aren’t able to stop the hemorrhaging, and fast.

The Sooners have fallen in the national rankings to No. 23 this week in both of the major weekly polls and are in real danger of falling out of the top 25 in next week’s rankings.

Lunardi presently has Oklahoma as a five seed, but based on the rankings, the Sooners should be no higher then a six seed.

Oklahoma is home on Saturday to host Texas and has two home games (Kansas State and Iowa State) and two away from home (Kansas and Baylor) after that to close out the regular season. The Sooners will likely lose at Kansas, but the other five games are all very winnable, assuming Trae Young and Company are able to get back the mojo they displayed earlier in the season in beating six of seven top-25 teams and four ranked in the top 10.

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The Sooners continue to lead the country in scoring, averaging 88.4 points a game, but you cannot expect to outscore every team every time out, particularly if you aren’t able or willing to play good enough defense to prevent your opponent from scoring more than you.

Defense, or the lack thereof, has been Oklahoma’s Achilles heel all season. Lon Kruger’s guys rank 337th in scoring defense (allowing opponents 82.2 points per game) among NCAA Division I teams and 183rd in field-goal percentage defense (43.9 percent). With a defense that shaky, Oklahoma is probably fortunate to have won as many as 16 games.

Teams that don’t play well defensively typically don’t stay around very long come March Madness. Again, this doesn’t speak very highly of Oklahoma’s length of stay in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

The OU defensive effort in the loss on Tuesday at Texas Tech was actually one of its better performances of the season. The Sooners were aggressive and put a lot of pressure on the ball in the Red Raiders’ half-court game, especially in the first half. That aggressiveness, however, got several OU starters in foul trouble, which Texas Tech was able to take advantage of offensively in the critical final minutes.

The Sooners were whistled for a season-high 25 personal fouls. With just under eight minutes to go in the game, Young picked up his third and fourth fouls in a 45-second span, and Christian James, who ended up with a career-high 23 points in the game, was called for his fourth foul with just over five minutes remaining. Both players stayed in the game, but obviously had to be more cautious not to pick up a fifth foul.

Lunardi still has Oklahoma projected as a five seed, but I don’t see that holding unless the Sooners are able to go 5-1 or run the table as they head down the homestretch of the regular season.

What I fear the most is that OU will go 3-3 or worse the rest of the way, lose its opening game in the Big 12 Tournament (which the Sooners have done an excellent job of in recent years) and end up in the 8-9 bracket in their first game in the tournament.

For those of you who aren’t aware, the 8-9 game is like the kiss of death. Statistically, it is the most competitive matchup in the opening round. If you are somehow fortunate enough to survive that game and move on, your reward for doing so is a matchup with the No. 1 seed in the region in the next round.

In a manner of speaking, the Sooners control their own destiny from here on out as far as how high or low they go on Selection Sunday.