Oklahoma basketball: Sooners get a second life; can they do something with it?

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 19: Udoka Azubuike
LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 19: Udoka Azubuike /

The NCAA Men’s Basketball selection committee ostensibly liked the way Trae Young and his Oklahoma basketball teammates performed in the first half of the season to put them in the tournament.

It literally has been an up-and-down season for the Oklahoma basketball program. The same team that was 12-1 on Dec. 30 has gone 6-12 since then.

As the announcement was made on the TBS “March Madness Selection Show” on Sunday, the OU men’s team, watching the broadcast live in Norman, instantly rose to their feet cheering, hugging and handing out high fives all around. One prominent figure, however, remained seated with his head buried in his hands. That person was Trae Young, who, in the moment, acted as if he didn’t even believe it

There are quite a few critics of the Sooners and the selection committee, however, who don’t agree that the Sooners should be in the tournament and don’t believe they will stick around very long when they get there.

Those sound like fighting words to me.

If you go on the basis of the last dozen games for both Oklahoma and Rhode Island, Thursday’s opening-round game appears, on paper at least, to be a mismatch. Rhode Island, regular-season champions of the Atlantic 10 Conference, has gone 8-4 over its last 12 games, while the Sooners have gone in a different direction, losing 9 of their last 12.

The Sooners go into the 2018 NCAA Men’s Tournament with the fewest wins of an OU NCAA Tournament team since the 1995-96 season, when they were 17-13 overall, and the lowest seed (10) since the 1998-99 Oklahoma team was a 13 seed.

That 13-seeded Sooner team, incidentally, which featured Eduardo Najera, made it out of the first weekend and into the Sweet 16 before losing to Michigan State 54-46 in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball
Oklahoma Sooners Basketball /

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

Teams work hard all season with the shared goal of winning a conference championship and/or becoming one of the 68 select teams to earn the right to participate in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Once you get there, the slate is wiped clean, and anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament. Win and you advance. Have a bad game, and your season is over.

You can certainly make a case that the Sooners are long overdue. We’ve seen what they are capable of when they play with confidence and not just to keep from losing. Even as a freshman, Trae Young is one of the best point guards in the country. When he plays like that, and his shooting touch is iin rhythm, Oklahoma is a very tough out.

The Sooners played eight NCAA Tournament teams this season and beat six of them, one of them (TCU, a six seed) twice. Oklahoma also defeated four teams ranked in the top 10 at the time the game was played (Wichita State, Kansas, TCU and Texas Tech). So they certainly have it in them to play a competitive brand of basketball and beat some of the very best teams in the country.

Getting back to the disparity in the season records between OU and its first-round opponent, Rhode Island: The Rams won their conference (Atlantic 10) with a record of 15-3; the Sooners were 8-10 in the Big 12 and tied for sixth place (with tiebreakers, however, the Sooners were seeded ninth in the conference tournament).

The two teams faced one common opponent this season Alabama. Both games were at Alabama. Rhode Island won there by four points; the Sooners lost by seven, 80-73.

While there is a giant difference in the conference records of OU and the Rhodies, there is also a pretty large gap in the strength of the two conferences.

The Big 12 is widely considered the strongest basketball conference this year, with seven teams (and you could make a good case for nine) going to the NCAA Tournament and nine conference teams with overall winning records.

From that, you could conclude that Oklahoma played a much more difficult schedule than Rhode Island. In fact, according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index, the Sooners’ strength of schedule was the third hardest in the nation. The Rams’ strength of schedule ranked 80th.

Records and statistics are a measure of past performance, however, and won’t be the deciding factor when OU and Rhode Island square off on Thursday in the first game of the opening weekend of the wall-to-wall basketball marathon affectionately known as March Madness.

One thing is certain. When you have a player as talented and skilled as Trae Young on the floor, you have a fighting chance to win every game.

The team that plays the best at the PPG Paints Arena on Thursday in Pittsburgh – and not necessarily the best team – will prevail and advance to play on Saturday, likely against the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, Duke.

It’s time for the Oklahoma team from the first half of the season to show up and play one of its better games.

Nothing says that can’t happen…even if you don’t believe in miracles.