Sooners Illustrated will present three things to watch before every men’s basketball game during the 2015-16 season.
TV/Radio: TBS/107.7 FM
Time: 6:37 p.m.
Series: Oklahoma, 31-10
Back in the Sweet 16
Oklahoma forward Khadeem Lattin watched film of last year’s Sweet 16 about a week after the loss to Michigan State. Jordan Woodard saw it that summer, hoping that he could learn from the game in the off-season.
Buddy Hield hasn’t watched it. There was no reason for him to watch it. But now, Oklahoma is getting motivation from it.
“It’s a new season, and we’re back where we wanted to be,” Hield said.
Ryan Spangler said he doesn’t remember much from last year’s Sweet 16.
“We’ve been here before,” Spangler said. “The past is out of the way now. We realize if we want to leave a legacy we’ve got to win Thursday.”
Oklahoma’s confidence is riding high, and the best version of the Sooners is showing up more and more often in the past four games. Oklahoma looked as good as it has all season through the first seven minutes against VCU, when Hield didn’t have a point.
This is a very different team than the team that lost to Michigan State last year. With the growth of four starters and a new shot blocking, defensive element that the Sooners didn’t have last season, the motivation to win isn’t lacking.
“It feels great knowing that we have a lot of the same people from the squad as last year,” Woodard said. “But this year, I feel like we are better, and we’re ready to go further. After last year, we talked about some plays that hurt us and didn’t go our way, but overall, we played like a younger team. This year, we’re more mature, and we’re going to play that way.”
Texas A&M set a school record with 28 wins this season but is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Lattin makes a big difference
It’s no coincidence that Oklahoma seems to be at its best when Lattin is on the court, not in foul trouble and playing well. After Sunday night’s victory against VCU, the Rams’ first-year coach Will Wade said Lattin is the key for the Sooners to make a run to the national championship.
He said if Lattin is on the court, Oklahoma could make the title game.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from the spotlight,” Lattin said. “We have five guys on the court at any given time that are just phenomenal. They play hard, and they play together. We’ll get it worked out. Thank you for the compliment, VCU coach.”
He’ll be tested again Thursday night, but it might be a bigger challenge than either of the two games of the NCAA Tournament. Against VCU and Cal State Bakersfield, Lattin matched up against veteran bruisers. Texas A&M freshman Tyler Davis is 6-foot-10 – and Lattin is very familiar with him.
They played against each other in the EYBL.
“He’s a big big,” Lattin said. “ He’s not very fast. He’s not very athletic. But he’s talented. . . . He’s young. It’ll be a good match-up. I like it.”
The group of four veterans who have started more than 100-straight games together told Lattin that he couldn’t be the weak link. For Oklahoma to reach Houston, Lattin’s hometown, he has to be even more than that
“My teammates know that I can do, and they know that I’m talented,” Lattin said. “They want me to be just as good as them. They know that there’s not going to be a drop off.”
Playing without 7-footer Akolda Manyang, who will miss both the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8 if Oklahoma wins Thursday, will require Lattin to stay in the game even more.
Ready for the Aggies
It seems unlikely that Texas A&M will ever be able to create the final 35 seconds against Northern Iowa in what was one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA Tournament history. The Aggies can however recreate the pressure defense that changed the game.
The Aggies don’t typical press like they did in the final minute against the Panthers, but they present a long, big challenge for the Sooners.
“They’ve got good size,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “You can’t really isolate any of them in terms of a mismatch. It’s just really good defensively.”
Texas A&M starts four seniors, four guards and no player shorter than 6-foot-1. Only Anthony Collins is shorter than 6-foot-5. Hield, Woodard and Isaiah Cousins are all shorter than 6-foot-5. Combating that size advantage starts with being active against players without the ball.
Playing West Virginia and VCU helped get the Sooners ready.
“It helps us a lot,” Hield said. “I feel like VCU helped us a lot too because we know VCU is aggressive, and they have a lot of similarities. So, we’ve seen what Texas A&M does. We’ve got guys and coach that get us well prepared for games like this.
“. . . I feel like we’re ready for this.”