SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Contending for a Big 12 regular season title and earning a respectable seed in the NCAA tournament was all supposed to come a year from now for Oklahoma, when it wouldn’t rely so heavily on inexperienced players.
Leave it to Lon Kruger to find the right mix, with a freshman point guard running the show, a trio of sophomores carrying the scoring load and a senior in Cameron Clark holding it all together.
There’s a good reason Kruger was voted the Big 12 coach of the year and has the fifth-seeded Sooners (23-9) set for a matchup Thursday against No. 12 seed North Dakota State (25-6) in the West Region.
Article continues below ...
Kruger is, after all, the only coach in NCAA history to take five schools to the tournament.
”They love to play, they love being in the gym, they have been able to focus on trying to make progress one day to the next, not just game to game, but they have practiced well,” Kruger said. ”I think that’s resulted in the progress that they have made.”
While the Sooners lean on youth, North Dakota State is in the NCAA tournament for a second time because of experience. The Bison start three seniors, led by Summit League player of the year Taylor Braun, who was on the verge of playing Division II hoops at Western Oregon before being offered a Division I career by NDSU.
NDSU coach Saul Phillips is trying to let his players enjoy every aspect of the tournament after winning the Summit League title. He enjoyed his moment in the spotlight Wednesday.
”Listen, we only get so many chances to have this stage, right? I mean, let’s face it, we do,” Philips said. ”I’m going to enjoy it. This is great.”
Here are five other things to watch as the Sooners look for their first NCAA tourney win since 2009 and the Bison their first in school history:
TAYLOR TIME: Braun was convinced he was a Division I player even if it was mostly Division II schools giving him offers.
The only offer ended up coming from North Dakota State. He visited the school during finals when campus life was dormant. The offer to play there came, and while he accepted it, the situation was far from ideal.
”I wasn’t overly thrilled with … just everything about it, but I (knew) I wanted to be a Division I player and this was the opportunity I was given and I took it and it has been amazing,” Braun said. ”I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Braun averaged 18.2 points and 5.5 rebounds this season leading the Bison in both categories.
SHOOTING TOUCH: NDSU is the No. 1 shooting team in the country but do it without relying on 3-pointers.
The Bison lead the country in field goal percentage at 50.9 percent. Marshall Bjorklund is the top shooter in the nation making 63 percent of his attempts. They rank No. 315 in 3-pointers attempted.
Oklahoma is opposite. Four of their five starters made at least 25 3-pointers during the season, led by Buddy Hield, and the Sooners shot nearly 38 percent on 3s.
”The first team to figure out a way to get stops, that’s going to be very important,” Phillips said.
DON’T LOOK AHEAD: The Sooners haven’t been tempted to look ahead at what might await in the next round with a potential rematch against San Diego State.
The Aztecs knocked the Sooners out of the NCAAs a season ago with a 70-55 win in the second round when Oklahoma made the NCAAs as a No. 10 seed.
”It’s not easy to earn the opportunity to play in the tournament,” Kruger said. ”So guys have done a good job and they deserve to be here.”
FARGO FEVER: One of the inspirations for the Bison hoops program was trying to follow the success of the football program that won its third straight FCS national championship in January. That came after a visit by ESPN ”College Gameday” during football season and was followed by the league championship in basketball.
”Our football team and our basketball team is doing a good job of putting Fargo on the map,” NDSU guard Lawrence Alexander said.
PRESIDENTIAL SUPPORT: There were three double digit seeds that President Barack Obama picked to pull off early upsets, including NDSU. But the Bison don’t see the endorsement changing the fact they’re underdogs.
”Here’s the funny thing, I would like to know how many people that picked us have actually seen us play,” Phillips said. ”I mean come on. … I didn’t see some of those guys. Obama was not at any of our games. I would have known that one.”