John E. Hoover: Questions linger after OU's Big 12 Tournament loss
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Friday, March 15, 2013
3/15/13 at 5:48 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.Original Print Headline: Questions linger after OU's loss
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - After a performance like this, the NCAA Selection Committee will ask difficult questions about Oklahoma.
Just how good is the Sooners' NCAA Tournament resume?
Does this team play with the kind of sentimental intangibles - heart or intelligence or hustle - that committee members tend to value?
Is OU's spot in the NCAAs secure after Thursday's 73-66 meltdown to Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals?
"We're always gonna be nervous about it," senior Romero Osby said.
Two weeks ago, the Sooners were a lock to earn a place in the NCAA bracket. But since then, OU has endured blowing a 22-point lead to a Texas team that finished the regular season 15-16, losing to a TCU team that went 11-21 (the Sooners never even led once in that game) and now blowing a 14-point lead to an Iowa State team that was on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
In all, Oklahoma has lost three of its last five games.
Coach Lon Kruger knows the 10-member Selection Committee takes a long look at such black marks.
"Sure they do," Kruger said. "Every individual on the committee has different criteria, different things they look at. Yeah, losing at TCU, losing late lead to Texas, yeah. But they also look at the good things."
The best of the good things in 20-11 Oklahoma's favor right now are its Ratings Percentage Index and its win total.
After the Big 12 Tournament, most projections place the Sooners' power ranking somewhere in the mid to high 30s. Typically, teams from the "power six" conferences whose RPI is 40 or better find themselves in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think we did enough to be able to be in," said senior Sam Grooms. "But at the end of the day, the committee makes that decision."
Said Osby, "We're fortunate enough that we know we're gonna be playing in the postseason, whatever tournament it is. We just need to make sure we stay focused on that."
Two things stand out in Thursday's defeat.
First, as Iowa State rallied from deficits of 32-18 in the first half and 56-43 in the second half, the Cyclones gathered 14 offensive rebounds and scored 18 second-chance points. During the late rally, ISU won most of the 50-50 balls.
"You're exactly right," Osby said. "They got a lot of loose balls down the stretch. ... I think that ended up being the deciding factor."
The result: Iowa State made just 1-of-12 shots from 3-point range in the first half, but hit 6-of-14 in the second half thanks to so many extra opportunities.
"I never thought they'd beat us to some balls," Kruger said. "They'd beat us to some balls, get a rebound, throw it out and make a 3. Those things hurt."
Second, the Sooners didn't string together enough smart offensive possessions as the game was getting away.
Osby, the team's leading scorer (15.7 points per game) and best all-around player, took just two shots in the final 9 1/2 minutes. And red-hot Cameron Clark (he tied his season-high with 17 points, including 13 in the second half) got the ball in a scoring position just once (for two free throws) in the final 7 1/2 minutes.
"Certainly, you'd like to get the ball to Ro every time down. And Cam was hot," Kruger said. "But Iowa State's fighting to keep that from happening, too."
Kruger is most disappointed in the lost momentum over the last two weeks, all those positive strides and progress the team made during his second season, fizzling into an unstable whimper.
"You'd like to think that, for instance, those 7-8 games in a row, we played really well. Then, TCU, we didn't," Kruger said. "You'd like to think we'd push that on through."
But they didn't, and now, unlikely as it sounds, they have to hope a good start isn't derailed by a flat finish.
The Sooners would appear to be safe. The Big 12 has a great history of landing teams with solid RPIs in the NCAAs. Of the 84 times a Big 12 team has finished with an RPI of 50 or better, 81 of those went to the NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 also has sent four teams with RPIs of 50-plus (including a 63) into the Big Dance.
Also, since the league was formed in 1996-97, 92 percent of Big 12 teams that won 20 games landed a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Then again, most years, the Big 12 gets six NCAA participants, but four times the league has advanced just four teams. This year, if there's a fourth and final spot, it would figure to go to Iowa State, which beat fourth-place OU twice.
Whether it's a 10-seed nearby, a spot in the "First Four" in Dayton, Ohio, or a tumble to the NIT, there are legitimate concerns.
The Sooners' incapacity to close out a double-digit lead (this was their third in a month), their inexplicable stumbles against bad teams, and now a lack of hustle combined with an inability to get the ball to their best players in crunch time - it's all given the committee reason to ask difficult questions about Oklahoma.
OU's Je'lon Hornbeak steals the ball from Iowa State's Will Clyburn at the Big 12 Men's Basketball tournament in Kansas City, MO, Mar. 14, 2013. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World