Oklahoma Sooners, VCU set to meet with a ticket to the Sweet 16 on the line

It'll be half-court havoc at the Peake Sunday night as the Sooners try to spoil the Rams "underdog" role.

Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2015-16 season.

No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners (27-7) vs. No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth Rams (25-10)

TV/Radio: TNT/107.7 FM

Time: 4:15 p.m.

Series: Series tied, 2-2

Playing the villain

One round after a tournament record 10 double-digit seed advanced, the Sooners remain one of the bracket heavyweights. As a result, they are one of the remaining evil stepmothers to a record number of Cinderellas.

Oklahoma didn’t hear about the upset of Michigan State until after its victory. Ryan Spangler didn’t know until he was asked about it in the locker room, but seeing top seeds fall has helped Oklahoma keep focus.

“I feel like watching those games helped us to not slip up and helped us to stay focused and locked in every possession,” Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield said. “We have to come out and compete. This team, it’s not really an upset. They’re playing in a good conference. Everybody knows VCU as being a team that’s always been physical.”

VCU is also not a traditional Cinderella.

The Rams are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. VCU is one of only eight programs that have been to six-straight NCAA Tournaments. Oklahoma hasn’t done that. Only two teams have won 24 or more games in every year for the past decade: Kansas and VCU.

VCU has made eight of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments.

“We’ve been very successful,” VCU coach Will Wade said. “But when we get here, yeah, we let our hair down and go play. We’re not in a Power 5 Conference. We don’t have the name recognition of an Oklahoma or some of those folks, and we don’t necessarily have star players. . . . . When we get to the NCAA Tournament, we just play as hard as we can and see what happens. We’ve had some success doing that.”

Oklahoma has star players and a pedigree, despite making just one more Final Four than VCU since 1950. The Sooners were additionally tight when they fell down 8-0 early against Cal State-Bakersfield. VCU has been a team that has always found a way to be on the opposite side of that emotion despite consistently being on the other end of midnight.

“That’s the nature of being the underdog, swinging away and not having anything to lose,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “That contributes to upsets. . . . But that’s the sport. That’s the way it is.”

Handling half-court havoc

The VCU pressure defense isn’t quite the full-court threat that it was under Shaka Smart. It’s a little abbreviated – like cut in half, abbreviated. There’s still a little bit of full-court pressure. It’s more than most teams but not as much as before.

“Our fans call it half-court havoc now,” Wade said. “We’re much more in the half court. We use our length and athleticism in the half court more to creates steals and create turnovers.”

Wade said Saturday that VCU also uses its depth to create mismatches as well.

Against Oregon State, VCU only create six turnovers but played a smaller lineup. Wade pointed to Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed and Mo Alie-Cox and VCU’s option to go 6-9 and 6-7 on the front line. Or starting senior Tulsa-native Korey Billbury, who is 6-foot-4, at power forward and playing smaller.

“When you have a lot of different ways you can play,  . . . it kind of depends on how the game goes,” Wade said. “We’ll try big. We’ll try small. See what’s the best fit for us and play that way.”

Oklahoma has to be ready for just about anything while still focusing on the high-pressure, half-court defense. TCU forced just six turnovers against Oregon State after averaging more than 15 forced per game during the season.

Oregon State was fourth in the nation in turnovers committed at 11.5 per game. The Sooners on the other hand committed less than 10 turnovers only four times all season and finished with a minus-4 turnover margin.

“They’re a real aggressive team,” Oklahoma guard Jordan Woodard said. “Their style of play, they’re been playing that way for a long time, but we’ve just got to make sure we stay on our game plan and don’t let them throw us off our rhythm because I feel like if we just stick to our game plan and execute, we’ll be fine.”

Manyang a maybe

After arguably his best game in an Oklahoma uniform on Friday, Sooners’ reserve center Akolda Manyang learned late Friday night of a death in his family.

Manyang stayed back at the hotel during the Sooners’ short practice Saturday, and Kruger wasn’t sure what Manyang’s status would be for the game against VCU.

“It’ll be up to him whether or not he feels like playing (Sunday),” Kruger said.

Kruger said that Manyang wanted to be by himself and stayed in the hotel Saturday. Manyang lost his parents at a young age and a brother when he was living in Texas. Kruger said that the family member was from Minnesota, where Manyang moved when he was 14 years old.

“It’s just devastating news,” Kruger said.


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