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Oklahoma Basketball: Will the Sooners make the most of their lifeline?

Oklahoma has lost eight of its last 10 games, but will March Madness reinvigorate this team? Or are they lost for good?

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Oklahoma vs Oklahoma State Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

After a forgetful second half to the regular season ended with a fitting defeat in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, the Oklahoma Sooners’ claim to an NCAA Tournament bid has been a fiery hot topic. With one of the strongest non-conference resumes in the nation combined with one of the most perplexing conference records, the arguments for leaving the Sooners out of the Big Dance certainly carried a fair amount of weight. But now that Oklahoma is officially in, the debate becomes about whether or not the Sooners deserve this lifeline. Furthermore, there’s the debate as to whether or not these guys can actually do something with it.

Not only is Oklahoma’s resume a bit weak on the back end, the Sooners just looked plain bad down the stretch. If the selection committee values overall body of work over late-season momentum and winning, does that still mean Oklahoma making the tournament was the right call? Now, the Sooners were dominant against non-conference competition (with two exceptions), but quite the opposite against the Big 12 — particularly away from home. That adds up to not only being quite average, but trending way down, which doesn’t really fit the traditional NCAA Tournament make-up. However, times have changed. Q1 wins rule the land.

What the Sooners always had going for them was playing in the Big 12, which is arguably the toughest conference in Division I, top-to-bottom. Still, when you play like you belong at the bottom of the conference totem pole, it raises questions about the integrity of the selection process when you’re invited to the biggest party of the year. But why would Oklahoma have any favor with the committee? Well, Oklahoma has plenty of quality wins and a strong RPI, so that’s the main thing. But for those f you who are into conspiracy theories...

Two words: Trae Young.

The most talked about player in all of basketball over the past three months is going to pull in ratings, draw crowds, and do wonders for the viewing experience. On college basketball’s biggest stage, it was going to be nearly impossible to leave his team out, right? Well some may not buy it, but his team — in all its disarray — actually earned its way in fair and square based in the committee’s criteria for this season. What people will have trouble dealing with is the idea that Oklahoma practically punched its ticket months ago.

Then there’s the in-state debate gone national between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Personally, I feel like Oklahoma State had a legitimate argument for a tourney bid, but I also don’t believe it should have been at the expense of Oklahoma’s spot. Based on the fact that Oklahoma wasn’t even on the 11 line, the two things aren’t really related. It’s not like OU kept OSU out of it, as several teams create a buffer between the two schools. This debate should involve Arizona State or Syracuse, but that isn’t quite as sexy.

The fact of the matter is that Oklahoma really does have a solid resume when you consider the strength of schedule and the quality of wins. Oklahoma went 5-2 against teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, as opposed to Oklahoma State’s 3-5 record in the same category. Further, Oklahoma went 4-0 against teams with an RPI of 201 or higher, while Oklahoma State also went undefeated against similar competition but played in three additional contests of that nature. On top of that. Oklahoma has a 6-9 record against Quadrant 1 teams, while Oklahoma State went 5-12. I’m not saying that all of this is fair, but it’s not difficult to see how this all went down.

When comparing these two areas of each team’s resume, it’s plain to see that the Sooners not only did much better against the top teams, but also managed to do so while playing three fewer cupcakes. Sure, it looks bad that the Cowboys beat the Sooners two out of three times, but this isn’t the College Football Playoff. For better or worse, head-to-head results don’t carry the same amount of weight when it comes to the selection process.

Another theory floating around is that other teams who weren’t invited but had solid cases were passed on because of the ongoing FBI investigation. Teams like Oklahoma State, Louisville and USC have all been connected to legal infractions, which some people believe factored into the decision to leave them out over other teams who may have been less deserving. That’s obviously more than a bit far-fetched, and all we have to go off of is NCAA selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen’s explanation:

Going forward, the Sooners should use this opportunity as a much needed second chance. A chance like this ought to reinvigorate them, and judging by the team’s reaction to the news, it may have been the spark.

With so much outside noise telling them they’re not good enough to win a game, or that they don’t even belong in the first place, now is the time to take control. We see it all the time in sports; nothing galvanizes a team more than a barrage of naysayers. If a group of people are told they can’t do something enough times, it should be no surprise when they eventually take it personally. However, they seem to have been in situations that should have motivated them on a number of occasions only to fall flat again and again. Maybe it’ll be different this time. Maybe it won’t. I’m not terribly confident, but the opportunity is there.

The truth is, amid all the madness, there’s a possibility that many Sooner fans are actively preventing themselves from imagining. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong to get your hopes up, nor am I saying Oklahoma’s chances of making a run in the tournament are realistic, but the reason this season has been so frustrating is because deep down we know what this team is capable of when it actually gives maximum effort, has an ounce of chemistry or has a lick of confidence outside of Norman. We’ve seen it. It’s been a while, but we’ve seen it. Yes, coaches have adjusted to stop Trae Young, but the team has been able to overcome it in rare instances. What they have to do now is find that magic and harness it once again. If that happens — and I hope it does — things could be fun again.

But until the games begin, I’ll take a page from Oklahoma point guard Jordan Shepherd. They may not understand, but not everything has to be understood.

The path is paved and the stage is set. It’s time to lace up those dancing shoes, Sooners. You’ve been given an opportunity that you perhaps don’t deserve, but it’s still there for you all the same. No one is expecting you to win this thing, but it would be nice if the team and its fans could at least leave this thing with a halfway-decent taste in their mouths.

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