Oklahoma will be the first Big 12 team out of the gate in the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Sooners (23-9, 12-6), who finished second in the Big 12 this season and are the No. 5 seed in the West Region, open up on Thursday facing 12-seed North Dakota State (25-6).
Texas also plays on Thursday night, in a late game in Milwaukee. The five other Big 12 teams who made the bracket this year are all scheduled for Friday second-round games in the tournament.
The No. 5 seed is the highest for the Sooners since 2009, Blake Griffin’s final season, when they were a No. 2 seed. A year ago, in OU’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since Griffin’s final year in 2009, the Sooners were a 10 seed and lost in the second round to San Diego State, 70-55. Oklahoma’s all-time record in the NCAA Tournament, in which it has made 28 appearances, is 35-27.
The Sooners were second in the Big 12 this season in scoring, averaging 82.2 points as a team, just behind league-leading Iowa State. Coach Lon Kruger’s team likes to play up-tempo and it is a very good free-throw-shooting team, which can be very important in the NCAA Tournament, where the quality of the competition is better and the games typically are closer at the end.
Oklahoma’s five starters, who have started every game this season for the Sooners, all average in double figures. The Sooners are an excellent three-point-shooting team (they led the Big 12 this season in three-pointers made), their leading Scorer, sophomore Buddy Hield, is their number one weapon from behind the three-point line. Hield, who averages 16.8 points per game, has made at least three three-point shots in each of his last seven games.
OU can score fast and often. Defense is not one of their strong suits, though. Because they like to play fast, the Sooners yield a lot of points and scoring opportunities to their opponents, who have averaged almost 76 points a game. North Dakota State’s 6-7 guard Taylor Braun, the Player of the Year in the Summit Conference, presents a matchup problem for the Sooners because of his length and his three-point-shooting ability. The Bison’s leading scorer, averaging 18.3 a game, is a 41 percent marksman when he launches from the three-point line.
Braun is their best shooter, but the entire North Dakota State team shoots better than 50 percent from the field, which could be a big problem for a team like Oklahoma that is not particularly defensive-minded. The scouting report on the Bison is that they are patient on offense and take good shots, and they like to move the ball inside-out, with center Marshall Bjorkland kicking its outside when he draws the double team. Braun isn’t the only guy OU will have to keep an eye on out on the perimeter, however. Braun’s backcourt mate Lawrence Alexander and reserve guard Mike Felt also shoot above 40 percent from three-point range.
Oklahoma has th higher RPI (27 for OU; 36 for North Dakota State) and BPI ranking (OU 26th; NDSU 64th). The one major difference between the two indexes is that BPI takes into account the margin of victory as well as wins, strength of schedule and so forth. The Sooners also have a large advantage given the strength of schedule. The Big 12 ranks first among all conferences this season in strength of schedule, and Oklahoma ranks 19th in SOS within that universe. The champions of the Summit Conference Tournament, by comparison, had the 118th most difficult schedule in 2013-14.
Coaching is another intangible factor that can have a huge effect come NCAA Tournament time. OU’s Kruger has well over 500 career wins in 28 seasons as a college head coach. He is the only Division I coach to take five different teams to the NCAA Tournament. Saul Phillips is in his seventh season as head coach at North Dakota State, where his cumulative record is 129-78, with two conference championships.
This could be a tough second-round challenge for the favored Sooners, ranked 20th in the country in this week’s AP poll. Given the offensive capability of both teams, this likely will be a high-scoring contest. The team that shoots the best and protects the basketball will win this one.
If the Sooners get by the Bison on Thursday, they could face No. 4 seed San Diego State in the third round on Saturday. The Aztecs are the same team that knocked the Sooners out of the tournament in the second round last season.
My pick: Oklahoma 83, North Dakota State 77