Oklahoma — as a No. 9 seed — will face Ole Miss in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, with the winner facing either Virginia or Garner-Webb in round two. The Sooners will be relying on their experience to overcome a dangerous Rebel backcourt.
Three of Oklahoma’s seniors were contributors in the final four run during the 2015-16 season. They averaged a combined 22 minutes per game during their freshman season on a team that featured now-Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler.
But their careers have also had many low points, in 2017-18 Oklahoma missed its first tournament in four years and then in 2017-18 was knocked out in the first round by Rhode Island.
Senior guard Christian James says that those experiences motivate him.
“I want to win so bad and I just want my teammates to have that experience to go on a run," James said. "It’s fun playing with your brothers. You’ll never forget these moments.”
The Ole Miss team that is standing in their way has plenty of motivation of their own. The Rebels went from 12-20 during the 2017-18 season to 20-12 this season and securing just their ninth NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
Kermit Davis, the SEC coach of the Year, is leading an over-performing squad that was projected to finish last in the SEC before the season. The Rebels scoring comes primarily from their backcourt. It’s led by junior guard Breein Tyree who finished third in the SEC in scoring this season with 18.2 points per game on 46-percent shooting and 38-percent from deep.
Kruger was quick to acknowledge that this may be one of the top combinations of guards the Sooners have faced this season.
“As far as all three guys being the three leading scorers, probably so,” Kruger said. ”All are good players, all can score off the dribble, score off the three. They’re really good and they have a lot of confidence.”
Senior center Jamuni McNeace may be limited in his impact on the court Friday as he recovers from an ankle injury he received in the Big 12 tournament against West Virginia. McNeace returned to practice for the first time since the injury on Tuesday and Kruger said after practice that he is doing much better.
“I think he’ll be able to play. I don’t know how much," Kruger said. "We’ll see more though after he comes back from a full-speed day.”
With McNeace out, the Sooners lack some of their ability to attack the Rebels in the paint. However, junior forward Kristian Doolittle still thinks the height of this Oklahoma team will give them an advantage. He's been filling in for McNeace as a presence down low, and averages 11.2 points and 7 rebounds per game.
“We’ll be able to get some looks that we like," Doolittle. "Exploit some advantages with our versatility across the board. Our wings are a little bit bigger than theirs so we’ll be able to get a lot of points in the paint, a lot of rebounds, stuff like that.”