With a Sweet 16 matchup coming up this weekend, Sooners Illustrated and Spartan Digest have combined to breakdown the five most important questions for each team.
Oklahoma is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009, also its last NCAA Tournament win before this season. Here’s Sooners’ Illustrated men’s basketball writer Justin Hite with the five most pressing issues for Oklahoma:
Will Oklahoma be ready for the big stage?
Everything would point to, yes. Although, it’s impossible to know for sure before tip. Obviously, the Sooners won’t be as seasoned as Michigan State, but Oklahoma does have its fair share of experience.
Oklahoma entered this postseason with just one tournament victory on its roster – transfer forward TaShawn Thomas won a Conference USA Tournament game with Houston. The experience otherwise is there. Oklahoma has started the same five players all season, the only “Power 5” conference team to do so, and has a combined 425 starts in its starting lineup – approximately 13 regular seasons worth of games.
Will they be ready? They should be.
Can Oklahoma get the ball inside to forward TaShawn Thomas on the offensive end?
The Oklahoma offense is at its best in transition – but isn’t every team – or when it works inside-out in the half-court. Thomas has shown signs of being a dominant offensive threat, but he has a tendency to shy away in big games
That changed in the second round against Dayton, when the four-year starter showed an aggressiveness that had been all to infrequent this season. In two tournament games, Thomas has 27 points and 14 rebounds after averaging 11.3 points and 6.4 rebounds during the season – a slight bump but one Oklahoma needs.
If Thomas can get going inside early, it almost always opens up Oklahoma’s bevy of 3-pointer shooters. Buddy Hield ranked first in 3-pointers made in the Big 12, and Isaiah Cousins was the conference’s top percentage shooter (45.3 percent this season).
Will Buddy Hield find his shooting touch before its too late?
The Big 12 Player of the Year hasn’t played like it during the past month of the season. His scoring numbers are still up, but it’s a spike in missed shots that have been the biggest problem for Oklahoma.
During the past seven games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament, Hield has been averaging 16.3 points per game but has missed at least 10 shots in all but the Sooners’ victory against Dayton.
Hield has missed at least five 3-pointers in all but one game as well.
Oklahoma has lost just two of those games, so maybe it’s not a complete recipe for disaster. Sooner or later, it should cause major problems though.
Will the Sooners’ bench be able to keep up this incredible play?
Oklahoma’s bench has produced 30 points in first two NCAA Tournament. Fifteen per game might not seem like a lot to most teams, but consider this: The Sooners’ bench scored just two points in the Big 12 Tournament and had just 25 combined points in its five games before the NCAA Tournament.
The Sooners don’t have a dynamic scorer coming off the bench or any consistent offensive threat outside of Frank Booker, who is more of a spot 3-point specialist than anything else.
The 30-point, two-game performance was the Sooners’ second largest two-game performance since the Big 12 Conference season began.
How does Oklahoma stop Michigan State’s team-focused, balanced offense?
The Spartans’ offense, which isn’t based on any one player, would give a lot of teams trouble. Oklahoma just isn’t one of them.
What gives the Sooners the best chance to defend Michigan State is Oklahoma’s ability and willingness to switch on the defensive end. With similar size matchups in the post and on the perimeter, Oklahoma can take advantage of its most common defensive strategy.
The Sooners switch on every screen in the post and every pick on the perimeter. Guards Jordan Woodard, Hield and Cousins have each shown an ability to guard all three perimeter positions while forwards Ryan Spangler and Thomas can guard either the four or the five.