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Oklahoma Basketball: Previewing The Sooners And North Dakota State

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The No. 5 seed Oklahoma Sooners take on the No. 12 seed North Dakota State Bison on Thursday in NCAA tournament action. Here's a look at the Sooners' first-round opponent

North Dakota State

Location: Fargo, North Dakota

Mascot: Bison

NCAA tournament appearances: 2 (other appearance came in 2009)

Head coach: Saul Phillips, 7th season, 133-83 overall

Overall: 25-6 overall

Conference: 12-2 Summitt League (regular season and conference tournament champions)

RPI: 36

SOS: 118

Impressive win: at Notre Dame, 12/11/13

Bad loss: at North Dakota, Nov. 24

Projected starters:

G 12 Lawrence Alexander, 6-3, 180, Jr. 10.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg

G 22 Kory Brown, 6-4, 200, So. 6.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg

G 24 Taylor Braun, 6-7, 210, Sr. 18.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg

F 32 TrayVonn Wright, 6-7, 185, Sr. 11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg

F 42 Marshall Bjorklund, 6-8, 250, Sr. 13.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg

Notable figures:

1: The rank of North Dakota State in field goal percentage. The Bison lead the country by shooting 50.9 percent from the field per game.

12: North Dakota State's national rank in turnovers per game, just 9.8 per game.

63.6: Marshall Bjorklund's field goal percentage this season, best in the country.

6: The number of seniors on the NDSU roster. The Bison may not have any experience in the NCAA tournament, but they have plenty of overall experience.

5: The numbers of categories senior Taylor Braun leads the team in: scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, 3-point field goal percentage.

Related Story: Scouting The Bruins: A Comprehensive Look At UCLA 

The Bison have become a trendy upset pick in the days since Selection Sunday, due mainly to their experience and the threat of interior scoring. Much like San Diego State's Jamal Franklin a year ago, Taylor Braun is Mr. Everything for the Bison. Braun leads the team in five categories, most notably scoring, and is a terrific 3-point shooter.

NDSU also boasts size inside that is an actual threat to score. The Bison aren't huge—its tallest player is 6-9—but their inside men are good scorers, led by Bjorklund's 13.4 points per game.

Most importantly, though, the Bison are a team that is not going to be rattled on the big stage. This is only the second NCAA tournament berth in school history, but the experience on the team will be a big advantage for the Bison compared to the Sooners' very young roster.

Related Story: Scouting Gonzaga: A Look At OSU's Matchup With The Zags

What Oklahoma Needs To Do To Win:

The Sooners have been here before and experienced the disappointment of a first-round NCAA tournament exit. This year, the Sooners are the favorite and seem to be the chosen No. 5 seed with upset written all over them. To avoid that, Oklahoma has to do a couple of things.

-Defend the interior without fouling

The Sooners have the bodies to deal with Bjorklund and the rest of the Bison big men, but they have to be able to guard without fouling. As good as D.J. Bennett has been in the second half of the season, the Sooners don't want him playing extended minutes.

-Be aggressive on defense

Oklahoma turned their season around after a three losses in four games stretch with a recommitment to good team defense. The Sooners had been struggling, but a loss to Texas Tech at home really opened their eyes to how much they needed to improve on that end of the court. The defensive improvements led to five wins in six games. The Sooners have to play good defense against the Bison, a team that leads the nation in field goal percentage.

-Hit 3-pointers in the flow of the offense

The Sooners rely on the 3-pointer quite a bit; some would say entirely too much, especially after a poor percentage against Baylor last Thursday led to a quick exit from the Big 12 tournament. Oklahoma takes 22.6 per game and makes an average of 8.5. That's well and good, but if the Sooners are taking more 3-pointers than shots inside the arc—like they did last week in Kansas City—that's not a formula for winning.

-Start fast

In Oklahoma's last two head-scratching losses, the Sooners have gotten off to poor starts that have ultimately cost the Sooners the game. OU can't afford to do that again. Hopefully, the Sooners have learned their lessons, both from the poor starts and last season's disappointment in the NCAA tournament.

The best teams don't always win in March, and anything can happen in the NCAA tournament. The Sooners have had a great season, one very few saw coming. Even though the Sooners weren't expected to be in this position at the beginning of the season, another quick exit would be a very disappointing end to an otherwise terrific season.

Oklahoma can—and probably should—win this game and will do so if it relies on a balanced offense and a strong commitment to defense.

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