The Oklahoma Sooners did indeed strike a blow for the Big 12 Conference on Friday in Columbia, South Carolina, against the Ole Miss Rebels.
The Big 12 had three teams viewed as being on the bubble. Oklahoma made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed even after losing in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, so one could say that the Sooners were not, in truth, a classic bubble team on Selection Sunday. Nevertheless, at least in the public imagination, Oklahoma was not an absolute lock on March 17 — likely in but very possibly a No. 11 seed. If you’re a No. 11 seed, you’re not safely in. Oklahoma’s No. 9 seed surprised some people — not a lot of bracketologists, but some.
Therefore, when other bubble teams Texas and TCU were left out of the field, the Big 12 was left with just six teams in the NCAA Tournament. “Just six” isn’t that bad for a 10-team league, but the Big 12 has placed seven teams in recent NCAA Tournaments, so six — by comparison — felt like a down year.
The Big 12 has rightly prided itself on its depth. It has been a very difficult conference to navigate year after year. Kansas continued to win it (until this year), but the larger calling card of the Big 12 was that any road trip is not a gimmie. This year generally lived up to that identity. Oklahoma State was the one Big 12 arena where road teams could still feel fairly comfortable, and even then, TCU’s loss in Stillwater played a big part in keeping the Horned Frogs out of the NCAA Tournament, so to an extent, the Big 12’s “nowhere is safe” texture remained intact in 2019. West Virginia beat Kansas and Iowa State at home, plus Oklahoma. WVU then won twice in the Big 12 Tournament to remind people that even the last-place team in the Big 12 is not a doormat.
With all of this in mind, Oklahoma — the worst of the six Big 12 teams in the field of 68 — had plenty to show to the nation against Ole Miss and a great first-round NCAA Tournament coach, Kermit Davis. The author of the Middle Tennessee-Michigan State 15-2 upset in 2016 (arguably a bigger upset than UMBC-Virginia — we could debate that one all day) had a lot of time to prepare Ole Miss for this game after an early loss in the SEC Tournament to Alabama.
It was very easy to be skeptical of Oklahoma and its chances against Kermit.
Yet, we should have seen this coming: Oklahoma was 2-0 against the Frogs of TCU this season, so Kermit was no problem in the round of 64.
That’s a laugh line, of course.
NO ONE SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS COMING.
Oklahoma scored 95 points against Ole Miss. Know how many times OU had scored that many points in 19 Big 12 games? Zero. Know how many times OU scored more than 81 points in Big 12 play? Once. More than 76 points? Twice. OU had reached 77 points with just under nine minutes left. OU got past the 81-point mark with 6:46 left.
This came from nowhere.
Does it help the Big 12? Sure — another win share always helps a conference this time of year.
More than that, however: This win was for the Sooners.
This win was for a team which spent a full conference season in search of itself. It went 11-1 outside the Big 12 but then got roughed up in 19 league games.
This win was for a team which played so many painfully ugly offensive games.
This win was for a team which was crushed into fine powder by Texas Tech and Kansas State, and which watched Iowa State hit a late dagger in Norman, and which watched Baylor come into the Lloyd Noble Center and hand down a beatdown of Biblical proportions.
This win was for a team which won only ONE Big 12 game against a conference member which made the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma beat TCU and Oklahoma State two times apiece; West Virginia once; and Texas once. Those four teams — accounting for six Big 12 victories of OU’s seven — did not make the Big Dance. The only league win was against Kansas.
Oklahoma spent two and a half months largely pushing a boulder up a hill and watching it roll back down. That wears on a team. Even if Oklahoma didn’t beat Ole Miss on Friday, the Sooners needed to know they could at least play a strong offensive game against an NCAA Tournament team. They needed to walk away from their season knowing they could play their best in a moment of significance.
In sports, playing your best doesn’t guarantee victory. You can be a great team, but if the other team is greater, you’re out of luck. You can be 1992 Kentucky and run into 1992 Duke in the Elite Eight in Philadelphia.
Oklahoma needed to at least play well, to leave this season knowing that the work, the struggle, the pursuit, the endeavor, led to something.
It finally did.
This win also meant something for Lon Kruger, whose two best teams at OU — that core group with Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler, Jordan Woodard, and Isaiah Cousins — did really well in the NCAA Tournament, but whose other three NCAA teams (2013, 2014, 2018) all failed to win a single game in the Big Dance.
Programs on par with Oklahoma can’t expect to make Final Fours or even Sweet 16s every year, but NCAA wins is a reasonable annual expectation. Getting that win share after last year’s early flameout with the Trae Young team (which was also under .500 in the Big 12) carries a powerfully positive balancing effect for Sooner basketball.
Yes, this win over Ole Miss meant something for the Big 12, but the Oklahoma Sooners did this primarily for themselves.
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