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Dean's Blog: Game Day In Columbus With Sweet 16 On The Line

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It was an inauspicious start Sunday when I arrived at OU's NCAA game with Dayton here in Columbus, OH. Three-and-a-half hours before tip, the elevator music was blaring away the replay of the team-down-the-road's win over Providence on Friday. I assume the Flyer pregame show for today's game with Coach Archie Miller was soon to follow.

To put it in perspective, I wonder if Shocker Basketball is playing in the arena in Omaha before Wichita State's game with Kansas? Good luck on that.

While the homecourt advantage is both unfair and significant, Oklahoma finds itself in an enviable position. Playing a mid-major, that barely made the tournament, with no player taller than 6-6, with a bench shorter and weaker than Oklahoma's, just forty minutes away from advancing to a Sweet 16 matchup with a 7-seed, in an East Region that has seen one and two seed Villanova and Virginia go down. No excuses.

It'd be a rematch of the 1999 OU-Michigan State Sweet 16 matchup. Mateen Cleaves and Sparty fighting tooth and nail with Kelvin Sampson and Eduardo Najera in St. Louis. A bloody affair that went to the Spartans.

If Oklahoma wins tonight somewhat close to the 4 1Ž2 point margin the smart guys project, I wouldn't be surprised to see the rare occurrence when a 7-seed is favored over a 3-seed. Lon Kruger is more respected by the basketball people like fellow coaches and athletic directors; Tom Izzo is worshipped by those same people, fans, media, and anyone who follows the game. So that would be a factor.

Although one of my local media pals who is especially keen on such things says, “With all the analytics, if Oklahoma is the underdog, smart money will fly in on OU. The public may bet it down to where it'd be a pick ‘em.” I'll buy that.

Bottom line: The road is as clean as it can be in March. Now it's time to put the biscuit in the basket. And fight like crazy to get it when it doesn't go in.

For the record, my bracket is ugly. But I do have OU meeting Michigan State next week. We'll see if I'm right.

If Oklahoma wins, the small but vocal contingent of Sooner fans here at the Nationwide Arena would probably savor whatever they heard in the postgame elevator ride. Especially if it were loaded with what will be an overwhelming throng of Flyer fanatics.

Photojournalist Andrew Hargrave and I will do interviews and analysis following the game. Please tune in to the Blitz tonight at 10:20 p.m. to see our report.

Sunday morning update: Dayton played close Atlantic 10 Tourney games last Friday, Saturday and Sunday – two four-point wins and a six-point loss. They beat Boise in the NCAA opener by one. So they've played a lot –- Sunday makes six games in 10 days -- and have done well in playing a lot of close games -- helped no doubt by one of the best fan bases in college basketball.

Dayton plays just seven guys so the thought would normally be that they'd have to be exhausted. But the OU staff and Dayton Coach Archie Miller see it as more of a mental test than physical. in part due to tourney opener , Sunday then play-in game Tuesday and beat Providence Friday, so the OU game Sunday will be their sixth game in ten days. The OU staff sees their body types, aggression, and competitive personalities and doesn't see the Sooners wearing down the Flyers.

No secret the Sooners don't care a bit for being a No. 3 seed and having to play an opponent that will have a prohibitive home court advantage. Dayton is seventy miles from Columbus and these fans take their hoops seriously. They were loud and proud, before, during and after last night's crowds are loud and proud.

But I asked one Sooner if I'd told him a week ago OU could play Dayton in Columbus for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16, would he take it. He quickly said yes, with a smile. No disrespect, but it could be worse.

Since Dayton will have a full-throated throng from tip to final horn, and since they've won those close games recently, I strongly suggest the Sooners not get into a cliffhanger. Easier said than done.

OU must control the boards. And the numbers say they will. Spangler and Thomas are 6-8, athletic, and can run the floor. Dayton doesn't have anyone on their active roster taller than 6-6. But they are much more athletic, stronger, quicker and simply a lot better than Albany's vertically challenged bigs who were worn slick by the Sooner tandem. And reserves Kadim Lattin and DJ Bennett also thrived in 24 combined minutes.

The other numbers of which I speak are found in the rankings. The Sooners rank 22nd nationally in rebounding and the Flyers are out of the Top 300 – which is one way of saying they struggled mightily after Miller exiled a pair of bigs during the season.

But watching the Flyers from courtside in their Friday win over Providence I saw a bunch of thick, young, well-sculpted athletes, out-scrambling on 50-50 balls and simply wanting it more than their higher seeded “visitors” from that tiny state way up there and to the right. Half of Rhode Island was here Friday but they couldn't hold a candle to the Flyer fans whose zip code is 55 minutes down the interstate – with pedal to medal.

The home crowd advantage was humongous. These Flyer fans were into it from the beginning. They will not doubt provide extra energy to the home team and persuade couple of whistles to blow their way.

But as I am wont to say, if OU can't beat a Dayton they can't blame it on being the 3rd-seeded visitor.

Keep an eye out for …..

Kyle Davis hounding Buddy Hield. How well Hield handles the inevitable heat he'll receive from a premiere defender will go a long way in deciding the winner. The scrappy sophomore guard secured the Flyers first game win with a lock-down defensive stop, keeping Boise State from getting a decent shot up on the final possession. And he was even better in the upset on Friday night, coming up with five steals and playing remarkable on-ball defense to lead an effort that collectively had Providence flustered from start to finish as it turned the ball over 16 times and scored just 53 points.. Slowing down Oklahoma star Buddy Hield might not be a one-man job, but Davis figures to be in charge of that mission for the Flyers.

Dayton Coach Archie Miller, whose brother Sean's Arizona Wildcats advanced Saturday to the Sweet 16, calls guard Scoochie Smith absolutely his best player - and undoubtedly the most “popular student" on the Dayton campus. But Kruger told me, “Dayton's strength is their two guys on the inside (6-6 Dyshawn Pierre and 6-6 Kendall Pollard). They've got really good perimeter guys too, but they want to establish those two guys on the inside.”

Here's a fact the OU PR people send out I found worthy of a copy and paste: Oklahoma is one of just six teams nationally (the only one among the "Power 5" conferences) that has started the same five players in every game this season. Interestingly, OU was one of just seven teams nationally that used the same starting lineup in every game last year.

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