, Muskogee, OK

March 20, 2014

Oklahoma looks to validate season

By John Shinn
CNHI News Service

— SPOKANE, Wash. — College basketball stands alone in how teams and seasons are gauged. Play for four months and it becomes lost to history. The NCAA tournament either validates, elevates or obliterates what happened in the regular season.

It makes March Madness a unique experience. It also adds to the pressure Oklahoma faces today when it faces North Dakota State in the NCAA tournament’s West Region at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

“I don’t think we’re content just to be here,” OU forward Ryan Spangler said Thursday. “We worked hard this year to be where we are. I think that to keep building this program we need a win and to get more wins.”

Winning NCAA tournament games would substantiate the 23-9 regular-season record and the second-place finish in the Big 12 Conference. The Sooners earned the five seed it carries into the tournament because of those accomplishments.

The berth is the program’s second straight. The majority of the team played against San Diego State in the 70-55 loss last season in the second round in Philadelphia.

Admittedly, the attitude was very different then. There was a giddiness that came with last season’s invite. Getting into the Big Dance was the aim all year long. After Selection Sunday, there was no more to chase. The upper classmen had never reached the tournament before. Most were satisfied with just getting their ticket punched. The younger players followed.

“It was my first time and I really didn’t know it was a different game,” OU guard Buddy Hield said.

The NCAA tournament differs from the first 32 games OU has played. Lose and the season ends. The intensity factor cranks up several notches when it is a do-or-die scenario.

Some flourish in that environment. OU admittedly, was not ready.

“We were really just searching for a win,” OU guard Je’lon Hornbeak recalled. “We really didn’t have the best practices leading up to the tournament. I fell like this go-around we had some really good practices and we have something to build off of.”

Building is what the Sooners are trying to do. There’s a strong feeling whatever they accomplish in their current form is a prelude to bigger success next season. Clark and sixth man Tyler Neal are the lone seniors. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Hornbeak are just sophomores who are adding to their NCAA experience.

The seasoning is important.

OU coach Lon Kruger downplayed the magnitude his experience will have on the Sooners’ success or failure. His players’ maturity is a different story.

“I think that helps. Experience helps, I think, having played and lost last year helps us better understand the opportunity and the feeling you have after it if you don’t win,” Kruger said. “I think that’s a little bit of extra motivation.”

Whether it helps or not will be answered today.

West Region

No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 NDSU

When: 6:27 p.m. today

Where: Spokane, Wash.

TV: TRUTV (Suddenlink Ch. 50)