Just hours prior to Oklahoma’s 91-90 double-overtime win over West Virginia on Saturday — which completed the Sooners’ season sweep of the Mountaineers — the NCAA tournament selection committee signaled its confidence in OU’s men’s basketball team by listing the program as a 3-seed in the first top-16 bracket reveal of the season.
For the Sooners, who also boast wins over Texas and Alabama, Saturday’s outcome could propel the program to a higher seed line, while also giving head coach Lon Kruger the edge in the national coach of the year race.
That’s why Saturday’s win felt like an announcement to the rest of the country: Oklahoma is real, its coach is one of the best in the country and a strong finish for the program in the NCAA tournament seems feasible.
Kruger is your favorite coach’s favorite coach, a workman with a career defined by consistency. He and Tubby Smith are the only coaches in the history of Division I basketball to lead five different programs to the NCAA tournament. His success during the 2020-21 season, however, has highlighted some of his best work.
Kruger has coached multiple stars, including Trae Young and Buddy Hield, at Oklahoma in recent years. But this group doesn’t have a player with the lofty profile those standouts enjoyed, which makes this feat more impressive. Kruger is doing this with Austin Reaves, the Wichita State transfer who leads the team with averages of 15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists. He has De’Vion Harmon, a former four-star recruit who is a more efficient scorer today compared to the shaky freshman we watched a year ago. Brady Manek, who arrived with Young’s class, has made 38% of his 3-point attempts.
The Sooners also have the lowest turnover rate in Big 12 play, per KenPom, and they’re holding opposing teams to a 45.5% clip inside the arc in conference matchups, too.
Oklahoma was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 race. Now, the Sooners sit in second place with a 4-0 record over the three teams (Kansas, West Virginia, Texas) behind them. They’re also tied with Ohio State with five wins over Associated Press top-15 teams, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
Coach Lon Kruger and the Sooners have just one loss since Jan. 9. Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Second place in a league topped by an undefeated Baylor squad is a meaningful position. The committee had five Big 12 teams — none named Kansas — in its first top-16 bracket reveal.
The spotlight over the league has centered on the rise of Baylor and the fall of Kansas. Between those two storylines is the reality that the race for second place in the Big 12 is one of America’s most fascinating events. That Oklahoma has put itself in a comfortable spot atop that pile says a lot about the strength of the program.
In a year when the sheer dominance of undefeated Baylor and Gonzaga squads has minimized our collective use of the phrase “national title contender” as a label for any teams that operate outside Spokane, Washington, and Waco, Texas, Oklahoma has emerged as a program that’s more than just a good story.
The Sooners continue to prove they are a threat to make a run to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
With just one loss since Jan. 9, Oklahoma is sailing — and the country is beginning to notice.