By John Shinn
NORMAN — The court at Lloyd Noble Center was kind of like Times Square Sunday afternoon.
Huge video screens loomed in every direction.
The only difference? Each screen was locked on the NCAA tournament selection show.
As Oklahoma’s players, coaches and support staff sat in one corner of the arena, coach Lon Kruger stood off to the side. He’s been through many Selection Sundays during his distinguished career.
His team’s reaction to seeing itself in the field of 68 was one to savor.
“It’s like as a parent when the package is under the Christmas tree,” said Kruger, who, with OU’s selection, became the first coach to guide five different programs to the NCAA tournament. “You don’t get excited about your own, you get excited about seeing your kids (open their gifts); that’s the same thing here. You see the fans enjoy it.
“The players and the coaches have worked so hard. For them to forever have that NCAA tournament experience is what makes it most enjoyable for sure.”
The Sooners (20-11) have been waiting for their next Big Dance bid since exiting the 2009 tourney after a Blake Griffin-led run to the Elite Eight under former coach Jeff Capel.
They’re the No. 10-seed in the South Regional and will face No. 7 San Diego State (22-10) Friday at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia.
Sooner freshmen like Buddy Hield, Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins were excited when OU’s name was called. Seniors like Romero Osby, Steven Pledger, Andrew Fitzgerald and Sam Grooms breathed huge sighs of relief.
Every national bracketologist had the Sooners getting into the field, the only issues being ones of site and seed. But when you haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in a couple of years, the wait can brutal, especially on the heels of a one-and-done conference tournament experience.
“It was tough,” Osby said. “We had a good practice yesterday, though. It was a competitive practice … Friday was a day off, so I hung out with my family a little bit. I really couldn’t stop thinking about basketball. I watched the Iowa State game and I really felt like we should have been playing against Kansas.
“We let an opportunity slip away, but we still got an opportunity to get in the tournament. Thank God we’re here.”
If the Sooners win Friday, they’ll face either No. 2-seed Georgetown (25-6) or No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (24-10) Sunday. The South Regional will be decided the following weekend at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Final Four is in Atlanta.
No one at Lloyd Noble Center was looking that far ahead Sunday afternoon. More time was spent reflecting on the journey to return to the NCAA tournament.
“Could have definitely been here a lot sooner,” Pledger said, “but I’m glad to be where we are.”