The best Oklahoma basketball season since a guy named Blake Griffin wore crimson trunks ended early this morning. The third-seeded Sooners were outshot, out-executed, and beaten in the NCAA East regional semifinals by a tournament-tested, seven-seeded Michigan State team that while nothing special, is a darn sure hard out this time of year. 62-58 was the final and it was a game I felt would go to the first team to 50.
It was a wasted opportunity that doesn't come around very often. So much of tournament play and championships is about the luck of the draw. 2014-15 will go down as a successful season for the Sooners, but one where their road to the Final Four was not paved with a single powerhouse; perhaps no great team. To make it to the Big Dance next weekend in Indy, OU's slate was very manageable. Beginning with getting a three-seed, the Sooners were placed in the weakest of the four regions. Their opponents were Albany, Dayton, Michigan State and would have been Louisville – all lower seeds, and none reminiscent of Phi Slamma Jamma.
Some thoughts on the game, the season and the future.
EXQUISITE COACHING: Sparty's Tom Izzo did a masterful job of adjusting to Oklahoma's early offensive and defensive success. But he didn't out-coach OU's gem, Lon Kruger, who did a masterful job himself all season—and last night—of maximizing OU's strengths and camouflaging OU's weaknesses. Against an Izzo team, especially in the Sweet 16, the inability to make the critical on-court decisions – be it shot selection, or whether and whom to foul – cost the Sooners dearly.
BISCUIT IN BASKET INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT: With 15:17 left in the first half, OU led 13-8 and had made jumpers from 13, 15, 16 and 22 feet, courtesy of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. The Sooners led by as many as 10 in the first half and didn't trail until 9:26 remained. But repeating an ugly trend, OU outshot MSU 41 percent to 31 percent in the first half but was outshot 48 percent to 30 percent in the second. There were other game-turning factors, but there's your game. Biscuit-in-basket is why Dr. Naismith hung the peach basket. My game day blog listing keys stated Buddy Hield and his 3-point mates would need to shoot 40 percent from distance to win. Not close. OU ended 4-of-17 or 23.5 percent, and just 1-of-8 from distance in the second half. Hield just 3-of-10, not helped at all by gunners Isaiah Cousins and Frank Booker combining miss all five attempted treys and missing 10-of-12 shots overall. A killer. A better opponent with better offense would've had OU down double-digits down the stretch.
TASHAWN SAVES OU'S BACON BUT THE 12-FOOTER? One-year wonder TaShawn Thomas came through big-time in the tournaments. You've gotta be happy for a quality young man who transfers to have a chance to play in games like the Sweet 16 and can see those dreams come true, while also building lifetime relationships with his new teammates and coaches. However, as I'd projected, unlike how he dominated in crunch time against the 6-foot-6 opponents in the first two NCAA games, Thomas was unable to have similar success with the suffocating and sound Spartan team defense. I believed coming in, that other than OU's 3-point shooting, the biggest factor against MSU would be whether Thomas could knock down a 12-foot open jumper. He banged a 15-footer from straight-on off the backboard, and otherwise refused to pull the trigger. OU would still be playing if Thomas had a 12-foot jump shot in his arsenal. With iron-man Ryan Spangler struggling mightily with confidence and not an offensive threat, the Sooners were doomed when they weren't hitting from outside and couldn't get anything remotely easy from the inside. Thomas will long be remembered by OU fans for his significant one-and done contributions and character. And I'm betting that in his final season, Spangler takes his already fundamentally-sound, disciplined, rugged, and yes, cagey game, to another level: that you can find him this offseason grinding away on his offensive game in a gym near you. That all-important 12-foot jumper his pal couldn't deliver in frigid Syracuse. Even seeking to regain the early-season confidence the former Bridge Creek star QB had when he was knocking down an impressive-for-a-big-or-small-man percentage of 3-pointers. Also, look for true freshman big man Khadeem Lattin to make a quantum leap and have a breakout year next season. And there's a hidden gem that could develop next season, but should definitely have a chance to make a major impact in the future. More on unknown 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Jamuni McNeace later. But just know the 202-pounder from Allen, TX has scary upside and jaw-dropping athleticism. You heard it here first. Or second. Lattin, Jamuni and the incoming 7-footer mean OU's inside game has a bright future. And it means Kruger's impressive and loyal staff can find players and recruit.
TOLD YOU TUM TUM HAS NOTHING ON DEAN DEAN: I most humbly wrote on these pages yesterday that at the tender age of whatever-I-am-this morning (I'd guess I'm creeping up on Moses. Not Malone, but the REAL Moses, with the wrinkles, long hair, cane in hand, and flock of people in the background of all those I-Phone photos he keeps posting on Instagram), I could beat Buddy's friend and starting 5-foot-9 true freshman Sparty guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, in a game of H-O-R-S-E. I'm not much on the move anymore, but can still nail a decent percentage of 21-footers, bank shots and vertically-challenged trick shots. But I wouldn't need to make but five shots to spell H-O-R-S-E, because Tum Tum can't shoot shoot. Started, logged 11-minutes, put up one shot, and made the same number I did on press row. When Sparty had the ball OU's closest defender to the Tumster coulda and shoulda been in the showers. DISCLAIMER: If you're related or buds with Tum Tum, I'm just having fun fun. I hear he's a swell guy, with a nice future future.
KIDS, IT STARTS ON DEFENSE: Michigan State's ridiculous runs under Izzo in March always begin with superior defense. Interestingly, Izzo said that individually, this may have been his worst defense in his 20-years in Greenland. But he believes this is as good of team defense as he's had. And OU's strong season was grounded in a big improvement in overall defense. They held opponents to a .386 season field goal mark, the lowest since the 1959-60 season.
WHICH BRINGS UP THE QUESTION OF HOW GOOD? This was Lon Kruger's best OU team. As fine a group of young men on any OU football or basketball team that I was a part of or spent time with traveling and in non-interview situations. Predictably under Kruger and his staff, class personified. However this team had limitations. Blake Griffin's 2009 team, a few Kelvin Sampson teams and several Billy Tubbs teams would beat this bunch in a best-of-seven series. And Tubbs' national runner-up team in 1988 would be a double-digit favorite. Heck, Mookie Blaylock, Harvey Grant and Company were double-digit favorites in the national title game over Kansas! Buddy Hield could be a first-round NBA pick whenever he goes pro. But that team of Billy's – and others in his era – had multiple first-round picks and players who had long careers and own NBA rings: Mookie, Grant, Stacey King. Rickie Grace played overseas for years and would light it up today. Still, this 2014-15 edition of Sooner basketball was strong, and a few plays from playing Louisville and having a good shot at advancing to the Final Four.
OBAMA'S GOT IRAN, OU FANS HAVE THE BUDDY QUESTION: The $64,000 question right now is whether the likable Bahamian leaves now or returns to play his senior season. If a couple of big men progress as I expect, without Hield, OU will be good. But if he returns, they could make another deep NCAA run. I've talked with the coaches, NBA people, basketball people I respect and Buddy Hield on numerous occasions about where he'll be drafted and whether he should, and will come out early. This morning, eight hours after OU's season ended in an emotional fashion for Hield, Buddy told me he “loves college.” Said convincingly he is having the “time of my life with these great guys and great coaches.” The honor student talked of getting his degree. We discussed the need to avoid assuming you'll be picked late first-round with guaranteed money, but sliding into the second where things get much riskier. And although I believe he's sincere, I also think that if he is led to believe, by experts whom Kruger tells me are “really accurate with their projections – GM's and people who know their stuff and have the kids' best interest at heart,” that he will be a first-round pick, Hield will most likely go. If he's told top 20-25, Kruger also believes he'll probably go. Money's too good. Now there's no doubt his games needs another year. A talented chap, Buddy needs to improve in multiple areas: ball-handling, toughness, aggressiveness in the open floor, creating space for open looks, consistent and clutch outside shooting, to mention a few. But NBA money is too good right now for healthy young men to turn down. In the end, I believe he'll be told he's a late-first to early-second round pick, and that he'll be torn. But a man who loves odds, I'd peg the odds of Hield returning at 61.134 percent. Perhaps 61.135 percent. But somewhere in that range.
BRACKET NOT BUSTED: Somehow, I've got six of the eight teams remaining in the tournament on my bracket. I had Sparty beating OU and Nova to advance to Indy; Duke beating Iowa State – the guys who started the complete destruction of the Big 12 Theory; Wisky over Zona in the West; and Notre Dame upsetting Kentucky in the Midwest because going with the chalk is standard as beating John in Play The Percentages. Kidding, kidding!
I hope you've enjoyed our tournament coverage both with the blogs and our TV stories in OKC on News 9 and in Tulsa on KOTV. It's been a fun, but grueling run through the Big 12 and two weeks of the NCAA Tournament. But I sincerely appreciate you taking the time and interest to check in. And we'll see you on the flip-flop.