NORMAN, Okla. — It was almost like a sudden gust of wind hit the floor at Lloyd Noble Center late Sunday afternoon. NCAA Tournament selection show host Greg Gumbel and Ernie Johnson reached the Os and right after Ohio State, there was Oklahoma.
The month-long swoon where the Sooners dropped from a top-10 team in every poll and metric to on the NCAA Tournament bubble wasn’t enough to keep them out of the field.
“I was nervous,” freshman guard Trae Young said. “I was very anxious to see if our name was being called. I’ve been very comfortable throughout this whole process until the last minute and a half. But once they called our name, all my emotions just let go. I’m very fortunate that they chose us. I think they did it right.”
Whether the Sooners (18-13) belonged is a debate that heated up a few weeks ago and showed no signs of cooling off. NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen laid out the rationale for the Sooners’ inclusion in the field. For most doubters, it wasn’t enough.
If Oklahoma and its fans that gathered for their team banquet prior to the selection show knew they were a shoe-in for an at-large berth, the roaring sigh of relief wouldn’t have been as loud.
“Look we didn’t do what we needed to do towards the end, and so we put our fate up in the air,” Oklahoma center Khadeem Lattin said. “So, at this point, all we can do is get ready for whatever is ahead of us, and pray for the best outcome. That’s what we did. We had two very intense practices, and we just started to get ready for the fight that lies ahead of us.”
The Sooners are the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region. They face No. 7 seed Rhode Island (25-7) on Thursday at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Oklahoma knows where it stands
The Sooners’ players are not deaf and they’re very adept at social media. They’ve heard all the critiques they’ve received while dropping nine of their final 12 games going into selection Sunday.
Young lobbied for the Sooners after the 71-60 loss Wednesday to Oklahoma State, which didn’t receive an NCAA Tournament bid. He cited Oklahoma’s strength of schedule and the quality of its victories.
Turner Sports analyst Charles Barkley didn’t hold back. When the meeting with Rhode Island was announced he said: “I don’t think they deserve to be in the (NCAA) Tournament and they’re gonna lose to Rhode Island.”
“I know our team has a big chip on our shoulder. Me, personally, I have a tremendous chip on our shoulder. I’ll be ready to play,” Young said. “I hear a lot of things. Not a lot people think we should be in, which is fine. The people who make the decision that we should be and that’s what matters. If you put our blind resume up, I think we would be in. I think we’ll have a tremendous chip on our shoulder. I don’t think that a lot of people not having us in is gonna affect us. We have to be ready to play.”
Getting out of Big 12 play should help Oklahoma
It’s no coincidence that Oklahoma’s slide began in early February, which is when it started facing Big 12 opponents for the second time in the round-robin schedule. It’s one thing to scout an opponent. The understanding grows of personnel multiples after playing against them.
The Sooners and Rams have never met.
“I’m not gonna say it’s a relief,” Young said. “The relief now is that it’s zero and zero and everyone has the same record. Now we know who we have to play. It’s gonna be different playing against a non-Big 12 team. We have to get prepared for them [Rhode Island]. They’re a really good team and we have to be ready to play.”
Much like the Sooners, Rhode Island limped into the postseason. After securing the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season title, the Rams fell to St. Bonaventure and Davidson to close the regular-season. Davidson upset the Rams on Sunday in the Atlantic 10 Tournament title to grab a bid.
None of that matters to the Sooners. They’re in the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence and four days of sweating since their abrupt exit from the Big 12 tournament.
“Obviously any time you get to play in the tournament you’re delighted,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “A long year, and we’ve had the extremes all in one season, very good play to less than that by a lot.”
This represents their last chance to recapture that level of play they had in December and January that has been absent for a month.