Bracket Flames: Boomer Sooner! Oklahoma one of six tourney sleepers

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Brad Evans
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When discussing college basketball’s most successful active coaches, the usual suspects are rattled off – Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Jim Boeheim, Bill Self and Roy Williams. However, Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath as his more publicized colleagues.  

He deserves to be.

In his 29 years of head coaching at the collegiate level, Kruger’s list of accomplishments depicts a well-traveled, yet incredibly consistent, career:

• 549 career wins (39th all-time, ninth-most active)

• 61.4 win percentage

• Four conference Coach of the Year awards in three different leagues (SEC, Big Ten, Mountain West)

• 16 NCAA tournament appearances

• Only coach in NCAA history to take five different teams (Kansas St., Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma) to the Big Dance

• One Final Four (Florida in 1994)  

To be fair, his overall profile isn’t devoid of criticism. Only one time during his nearly three decades on the sidelines has he ever won a regular-season conference title. His 14-15 record in NCAA tournament games isn’t exactly stellar either. Still, Kruger’s imparted wisdom and string of 20-plus win seasons shouldn’t be overlooked.

Neither should his Oklahoma Sooners.

The Big 12, without a doubt, was the toughest league in the land this season. Every members' schedule was booby-trapped with landmines, rolling boulders and unexpected Ls.  Those that took the bait were left with unfortunate blemishes. For example, Texas Tech, the worst club in the conference, handed tournament teams Iowa St. and Oklahoma St. losses.

Each night was a test. Each night was a struggle.  

Kansas emerged from the fray with its 11th-straight Big 12 title, a mind-blowing feat, but the rigorous gauntlet Oklahoma ran certainly prepared it for the second season. Seven of its 12 division wins were against teams ranked inside the RPI top-50. Additional non-conference triumphs over UCLA and Butler in the Battle for Atlantis and a road victory over Tulsa also toughened the skin. Overall, it was a laudable 7-7 in road/neutral environments.

Entering the NCAA tournament winning 10 of their last 13 games, the No. 3 seed in the East region is hoping to recapture the Final Four magic from the Billy Tubbs and Kelvin Sampson eras. Though it’s danced in consecutive seasons under Kruger, early dismissals delivered by N.C. State in 2012 and North Dakota St. last year have, understandably, lowered expectations in Norman. However, the Sooners posses the characteristics of a squad poised to overachieve.

Buddy Hield's game demands to be heard. (AP)
Buddy Hield's game demands to be heard. (AP)

For starters, their defense, a hallmark of Kruger-coached teams, is asphyxiating. Isaiah Cousins blankets assignments like bark on a tree. Fellow teammates Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard also create havoc. The trio has coaxed a combined 4.3 steals per game. Not to be outdone, Tashawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler have been pests in the post. Together they’ve racked 14.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

Mixing zone and man while also applying occasional full-court pressure, the Sooners are annoying flies. Every time the opposition attempts to swat them away, they reengage aggressively. It’s no wonder why they’ve surrendered just 0.889 points per possession this season, the fifth-lowest mark among this year’s NCAA tournament participants. Overall, Oklahoma ranks inside the top-50 nationally in seven defensive categories.

On offense, the Sooners are plenty potent. Hield, a Wooden Award candidate, is a prolific scorer inside and out. He’s netted over 37 percent from distance, 48 percent inside the arc and 80 percent at the charity stripe. This year, he’s compiled at least 20 points in a game 12 times, many of those transition buckets delivered in spectacular fashion. Also an undaunted rebounder, he’s the club’s most complete player.

But the Sooners aren’t an army of one.

Cousins is a sharpshooter drilling 45.4 percent beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Thomas and Spangler typically clean up in the paint, totaling 21.4 points per game. Sixth man Frank Booker has also contributed meaningful minutes off the bench.

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Above all, OU’s most impressive attribute has to be its unfazed demeanor. That’s all Kruger. The coach is stoic under pressure. Often when thrust into adverse situations, he’s chosen not to call timeouts, forcing his players to fight through hardship. That unconventional approach has, as Thomas recently told The Oklahoman, instilled confidence, toughness and trust throughout the team.

“If you have somebody that’s just jumping on you after every mistake and you look at the sideline, it’s going to bring your confidence down. If you make a mistake and you look at the sideline and coach is just like, ‘Just calm down,’ giving you positive feedback, it helps you out a lot. It keeps you positive to where you don’t keep your mind on that one mistake. Mistakes are going to happen in basketball so if you gripe on every one, you’re going to be a stressed out guy.”

As a result, the Sooners have bounced back quickly, evidenced earlier this month. After yielding a 21-point lead at Iowa St. March 2, a comical collapse that eventually led to its ninth-loss of the season, they responded resolutely knocking off shorthanded Kansas in the follow up at Lloyd Noble Center.

Like every team not named Kentucky, Oklahoma isn’t without flaws. It isn’t the strongest rebounding team and outside Spangler and Thomas it severely lacks frontcourt depth. If whistles are frequent, they become vulnerable in a hurry.

Still, as secondary metrics such as KenPom, KPI and Massey prove, OU Is a top-7 team disguised as a No. 3 seed. If everything clicks, Boomer Sooner could rightfully stake a spot in Indianapolis. The stacked East region, after all, is completely up for grabs. 

BRACKET FLAMES

Here are five additional underdogs (No. 5 seeds or lower) that could channel Cinderella:

Northern Iowa Panthers (30-3, No. 5 seed, East region)


The Panthers aren't exactly Thundercats. Visually, they're not overly athletic or splashy in their play, but they're the definition of fundamentally sound. Ben Jacobson's club is essentially the Virginia of the Midwest. Its suffocating pack-line defense has routinely strangled opponents. On the year, it ranks No. 16 in defensive efficiency yielding a mere 0.932 points per possession. Just as effective on offense UNI racked a top-15 points per possession output. In a word, the Panthers are 'balanced.' Seth Tuttle, the Missouri Valley Player of the Year, is the consummate point forward, a guy in the vein of former Louisville standout David Padgett. Allow him to get a touch inside and he'll score one off the square or swing it outside to Nate Buss, Paul Jeperson or Matt Bohannon for an uncontested three. Overall, UNI shoots 39.7 percent outside the arc and 53.9 percent inside it. Also impressive on the defensive glass and solid at the charity stripe (72.6 FT%), it really possesses few weaknesses. Yes, the path for the Panthers is treacherous. The East region, featuring the likes of Villanova, Virginia and Oklahoma, is loaded, but their experience and undaunted attitude will make them an incredibly difficult out. Don't be shocked if the pride of Cedar Falls reaches the Elite Eight. 

Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (29-4, No. 12 seed, South region)


TIMBER!!! The Lumberjacks are about to cut down a high-profiled opponent. Next to chopping wood, SFA excels at offensive execution. Nine times this season it's surpassed 90 points in a game. Stellar on a per possession basis, the 'Jacks rank No. 19 nationally in offensive efficiency swishing 1.130 points per possession. Box score filler Thomas Walkup is a supreme across-the-board contributor. Entering the NCAA tournament, he's averaged 20.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game over his last dozen contests. As a unit, Brad Underwood's kids rank inside the top-45 nationally in eight offensive categories. An outstanding passing team (No. 4 in A/FGM), they shift the ball around beautifully and thrive on run-outs in transition. Also very active on the offensive glass (No. 13 in OR% nationally) and defensively tenacious -- they coax turnovers on 24.3 percent of opponent possessions -- the Lumberjacks always carry a sharpened ax. Recall last year, they knocked off VCU in another 12-5 matchup. This time around, they could go a step further reaching the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. Watch out. 

Buffalo Bulls (23-9, No. 12 seed, Midwest region)


Everyone may hate Christian Laettner, but his former teammate, Bobby Hurley, is someone to love. The ex-Duke standout has his Bulls in prime position to spring an early-round upset. Buffalo is a team with few flaws. It contests shots with considerable vim and vigor generating numerous steals in the process. This year, the Bulls conceded just 0.985 points per possession and 33.0 percent from downtown. Due in large part to the execution of paint patroller Justin Moss they also manufacture several second-chance opportunities and cash in frequently at the free-throw line (72.2%). In fact, nearly 24 percent of their points come from freebies. In tight contests, Buffalo typically closes out. The Bulls were terrific in the highly competitive MAC notching a 12-6 mark while earning the automatic berth against by toppling stiff foes Akron and Central Michigan. Not to be overlooked, they also pushed Wisconsin to the limit at the Kohl Center in late December. Because of their balanced play and ability to protect the basketball, Bob Huggins' inexperienced and injured West Virginia team, the Bulls' first-round matchup, could suffer an early elimination. The MAC daddies got game. 

Dayton Flyers (25-8, No. 11 seed, East region)


In Dayton, the home cookin' is sure to be finger-licking good. Your mom would agree. The Flyers, stunningly the last at-large team in the field, were gifted a cooked goose on a silver platter. Oddly, the Selection Committee placed them in the First Four. Where do those games take place? At University of Dayton Arena, the Flyers' home court. Sorry Boise St. Archie Miller, a hot coaching commodity, has his club primed for another surprising run. Last year, Dayton, then also an 11 seed, blazed an improbable trail to the Elite Eight. Though its chances of matching the feat are long, it's a strong candidate to win multiple games. Jordan Sibert and DyShawn Pierre, key holdovers from last year's team, are back. Equally important, Kendall Pollard, who chipped in critical minutes in 2014, has taken his game to the next level netting double figures in eight of his last nine games. Featuring a seven-man rotation, Dayton lacks depth. However, it aggressively attacks the rim (52.9 2PT% O), punishes opponents at the free-throw line and clamps down defensively (0.947 pts/poss allowed). If the Flyers take out Boise St. in the play-in game, it has the luxury of traveling to Columbus to face Providence. You think a sea of red will follow? Bank on two wins, maybe more. 

BYU Cougars ( 25-9, No. 11 seed, West region)


Speed and relentless scoring are the name of BYU's game. The Stormin' Mormons function at a high level offensively. They play at an exhaustive pace averaging over 70 possessions per game. Many teams that push pedal-to-metal don't execute smoothly, but the Cougars certainly do. They shoot over 38 percent from three, 50 percent inside the arc and 77 percent at the charity stripe. In terms of offensive efficiency, they rank eighth nationally. Dudes can shoot. Kyle Collinsworth is the NCAA's version of Russell Westbrook, an unsung stud who's logged six triple-doubles this year. Not to be outdone, his compatriot, Tyler Haws, has totaled 20-plus points in 17 games. BYU also rarely turns the ball over coughing up the orange on just 16.4 percent of its possessions. Defensively it occasionally lags, evident in its 130-plus ranking in six defensive categories. Late-season setbacks to Anson Winder and Chase Fischer also raises concern. Still, this is a team that peaked down the homestrech improbably upending Gonzaga in the Kennel. If the Cougars can play even average defense, they should bounce Ole Miss in the First Four and eliminate Xavier shortly thereafter. Danger danger. 

TOURNEY TIDBITS

Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:

• At least one No. 12 seed has advanced beyond the opening round 13 of the past 14 years. Three of the four reached the Round of 32. In the second round No. 12s are 20-25 (44.4%) all-time.

• A No. 16 has never defeated a No. 1, though Alonzo Mourning still wakes up in cold sweats about Princeton.

• Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have survived the opening round in just 21.7 percent of its attempts; No. 14s 9.1 percent.

• No. 15 seeds are 4-56 in opening-round games since 2000; 7-113 all-time. 

• First Four winners have had considerable success. In the four years of their existence, at least one has reached the Round of 32 each year. Three of those four years one has marched onto the Sweet Sixteen.

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