It’s hard to imagine it’s been 20 years since Kelvin Sampson’s Oklahoma Sooners took on Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats — a team that featured Jason Terry and Richard Jefferson. On the first Friday of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, the 13th-seeded Sooners pulled one of the biggest upsets of that year’s tournament and held off ‘Zona in a low-scoring, grind-out game in signature Sampson style. That Oklahoma team would defeat UNC-Charlotte two days later and eventually bow out against Michigan State in the Sweet 16 the following week.
Fast forward a decade and it was 2009 NCAA Men’s Player of the Year Blake Griffin kickstarting another exciting, and ultimately heartbreaking, run — carrying the Sooners to the brink of the Final Four in a loss against that season’s champs, the North Carolina Tar Heels.
So, here were are again, another decade later, as 9-seed Oklahoma gets set to tip off the 2019 NCAA Tournament in a morning matchup against the 8-seeded Ole Miss Rebels in Columbia, S.C.
Each of these three Oklahoma teams I’ve mentioned are starkly different from one another. The ’99 team, on the bubble and catching some tough breaks pretty much all season, took full advantage of their late ticket to the Big Dance by going on a surprise run that earned the respect of the nation. Discipline, toughness and perseverance were the trademarks of that squad through a tumultuous regular season.
Here’s the end of the first-round game against Arizona in the 1999 tourney. The video has absolutely horrific quality, but whatever. Boomer Sooner.
The 2009 squad was on the other end of the spectrum — a 2-seeded, balanced, legitimate title contender that boasted undoubtedly the nation’s top player and came in with championship aspirations. Unfortunately, head coach Jeff Capel’s bunch fell short to his alma mater’s fiercest rival, UNC, in the Elite Eight.
My mind couldn’t help but reminisce on those watershed moments in Oklahoma basketball leading up to this game against Ole Miss. While the ’99 and ’09 teams were clearly miles apart from one another, I remember one distinct thing — they both knew their identity. Sampson’s team had established their defensive-minded, wear-you-out instead of shoot-it-out approach, which was starting to become a national staple in 1999. On the other hand, Capel’s 2009 Sooners were a high-flying, sharp-shooting, promising squad that, had Griffin not missed the home game against Kansas with a concussion, would’ve likely been Big 12 Champions. That team liked to run, dunk and shoot threes, and the nation ate it up.
But just what is the 2018-19 OU team’s identity? I’ve been trying to figure it out all season. Most likely you all have, too. After a hot start and an impressive non-conference run, these Sooners had a rough time in Big 12 play but ultimately did enough to get in as a 9-seed. Most experts predicted OU as a 10-seed going into Selection Sunday.
So, on the 10th and 20th anniversaries of those two storied March Madness runs for Oklahoma basketball, it’s high time for this experienced but inconsistent, roller-coaster Sooner squad to carve out its own unique identity. It’s the penultimate chance to put a mark on a season with little expectation following the loss of Trae Young to the NBA. It’s not too late to make some positive memories.
In fact, it’s about time for Lon Kruger’s Sooners to announce to the nation just who they are. I’m obviously not talking Final Four or anything. This is a strange bunch. But there were bright spots all year. Making it to the Round of 32 and giving the 1-seed a tough game isn’t totally out of the question with what seems like a pretty decent draw.
Landing grad-transfer Aaron Calixte and the emergence of true freshman Jamal Bieniemy helped stabilize the offense after the brief but exciting Trae Young era, while Kristian Doolittle took another step forward as a leader in a much-improved junior season. Senior Christian James has to show up big in what could be his last game in a Sooners uniform, but it may be Brady Manek who is the biggest key in this matchup against Ole Miss.
The wings need to be aggressive throughout against a Rebels squad that could surrender points in bunches. It’s unfortunate Jamuni McNeace, also vastly improved from a year ago before the ankle injury earlier this season, still isn’t quite 100 percent. With his activity in the paint on both ends of the floor, I really feel OU could’ve overcome some potential shooting woes to out-work the Rebels to an ugly win. But if we know anything about Jamuni, we should’ve suspected that he wasn’t about to sit this one out.
Jamuni McNeace going full speed through drills. He’s been battling an ankle issue. When asked, on scale of 1-10, how his ankle is, he said it is a 10 “because I don’t want to have any excuses.” #Sooners pic.twitter.com/wB06fiS2s9— Eric Bailey (@EricBaileyTW) March 21, 2019
Truth is, we have absolutely no idea what to expect from this squad come tip-off. We’ve seen the most thrilling highs against the likes of Kansas, but the team has also delivered its fair share of disappointments.
It’s time to draw on the good and shrug off the bad from this up-and-down season. There really shouldn’t be too much pressure on this team — one that few predicted would even make the tournament in 2019, let alone as a 9-seed.
And this is a winnable matchup in one of the more-evenly paired games of the first round. But nothing has truly been written yet in 2019, just like nothing was in 1999 nor 2009 at this time, either. While there is no Blake Griffin or Buddy Hield or Trae Young on this Sooner squad, there also isn’t a Jason Terry or Richard Jefferson on the other side for Ole Miss.
This team had no expectations coming into the season and is going in as an underdog against Ole Miss, so perhaps this team is playing with house money. Who knows? Maybe this team will be the loosest OU group we’ve seen all season. It’s time to just go play some ball and possibly find a unique place in Oklahoma basketball history.
Score prediction: Sooners 71, Rebels 66