Favored to lose in 2013; and a trendy pick to be upset as a No. 5 seed in 2014: Oklahoma finally enters the NCAA Tournament with the expectations of making a big run in the ‘Big Dance.’
“The three seed would indicate that,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “You want that. With that comes a responsibility, a healthy burden, a healthy expectation. But that’s what you want. Now we’ve got to go deliver on those expectations.
“They’ve earned that opportunity. That’s a real compliment to them.”
Two of ESPN’s seven analysts picked Oklahoma to make the Final Four.
The following is a theoretical account – with some factual evidence – how exactly Oklahoma would make the Final Four in Indianapolis.
First round – No. 14 Albany: Oklahoma makes a big statement in the first round. TaShawn Thomas is involved early and finishes with 20 points and 12 rebounds. The defense is stout, forcing an Albany team that hasn’t played a “Power 5” conference opponent this season into a frantic pace after a double-digit run in the first half. Guard Buddy Hield closes out the game with 10 points in the second half – 19 for the game – as Oklahoma wins by more than 20. It’ll be one of the highest margins in the first round.
Second round – No. 6 Providence: This actually might be a better match for Oklahoma than if Dayton runs through the first two games. The Flyers would have a noted home-court advantage against the Sooners. In this one, another good game from Oklahoma front court comes in handy. This time, it’s Ryan Spangler. The junior forward, with a little help from Thomas, shuts down high-scoring Providence forward LaDontae Henton – averaging 19.7 points per game. Jordan Woodard doesn’t have the best game with six assists and four turnovers, but he’ll shake it off moving forward.
Sweet 16 – No. 7 Michigan State: The Sooners catch a seeding break as the Spartans continue their postseason run with a last-second upset of No. 2 Virginia in the second round. Still, Oklahoma gets to face Michigan State coach Larry Izzo, who is 36-14 in the NCAA Tournament since 200. Oklahoma plays its first close game against the Spartans, who lost to Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame, Maryland and Wisconsin during the season, with Kruger setting up a game-sealing play in the waning seconds: Woodard to Spangler.
Elite Eight – No. 1 Villanova: Of all the No. 1-ranked teams, Oklahoma couldn’t have asked for a better match-up. The Wildcats mostly rely on a four-guard line-up and love to shoot the 3-pointer – 43 percent of shots are behind the arc. The Sooners’ switching defense fits perfectly, but they’ll still have to stop Villanova, which has six players who shoot better than 36 percent from behind the arc. Oklahoma knows what to do, having experienced games against Iowa State three times. When Villanova makes its run and pulls away by double digits early in the second half, Oklahoma goes inside where the Wildcats are vulnerable. The Wildcats hit just two 3-pointers in the second half, and Thomas closes the door for Oklahoma, which wins by six points.
Final Four – No. 2 Duke: The Blue Devils have eight McDonald’s All-Americans and three potential first-round picks, including potential first overall pick Jahlil Okafor. On the bright side for Oklahoma, the Blue Devils might be the only team thinner than the Sooners. If Oklahoma is to upset Duke, then Woodard would have to play the game of his life. The Blue Devils are susceptible to dribble-drive penetration. That and the Sooners would have to shoot the game of their lives.
National Championship – No. 1 Kentucky: What a monster. The team that beats Kentucky will somehow shoot better than 50 percent, mostly from the 3-point arc, and find a way to slow down the Wildcats on the offensive end. Does that fit the profile of the Sooners? Yeah, Oklahoma is one of the top defensive teams in the country and can knock down a ton of 3s. They’d still need the best game of their lives.
Six victories to the program’s first national championship, with the Sooners still looking for their first NCAA Tournament win since Blake Griffin left campus.