12:15 PM EST, CBS – Line: Rhode Island -2, Over/Under: 157.5
Get ready to kick off the 2018 NCAA Tournament, folks, with an always interesting 7/10 Matchup as the struggling Oklahoma Sooners look to correct their course against the Rhode Island Rams, who are also looking for atonement in their own right after getting upset in the Atlantic-10 Tournament. It’s really been a tale of two seasons for Oklahoma (18-13, 8-10 in Big XII), who after getting off to a torrid start to the campaign, miraculously morphed into a dumpster fire in the League Play; Lon Kruger’s charges began the season on a 12-1 run, before going a miserable 8-10 against their own conference, dropping seven of their final nine outings before competing in the Big XII Tournament, where they promptly lost to arch-rival Oklahoma State (71-60). Indeed, it came as a shock to many as to how the Sooners were even selected for the Tourney to begin with, but the Selection Committee cited their strong start to the term, along with key victories over League Champion and No. One Seed Kansas and Texas Tech. Granted, this was also humbled by both opponents the second time around, but we could debate the decisions of the Selection Committee for hours… Anyway, when we last saw Oklahoma, they failed to overcome an early deficit against their neighbors from Stillwater, trailing 39-28 at Halftime. It was a dismal offensive performance for the Sooners, who managed to shoot just 37.9% from the Field, including 9-of-27 from beyond the Arc (33.3%), while committing more Turnovers (12) than Assists (10). Kruger had to have been shaking his head after this one, for as much as his side has struggled defensively throughout the campaign, they were damn-near stifling last Wednesday in Kansas City, relegating the Cowboys to 39.1% Shooting, while forcing Sixteen Turnovers in comparison to yielding Twelve Assists. However, the difference in the affair was on the glass, where they were absolutely MANHANDLED; the Pokes outrebounded them 47-26, including 14-5 on the offensive end, which granted them additional easier looks at the rim. As has been the case for months now, Oklahoma proved to be far too dependent on Trae Young (27.4 PTS, 42.1% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.7 STL, 28.3 PER) the star Freshman who had spent the majority of the season lighting scoreboards on fire. The lithe Underclassman totaled Twenty-Two Points, Three Rebounds, Five Assists, and a pair of Steals, but continued to struggle mightily with both his shot (7-of-21 FG, 33.3%) and his handle (4 Turnovers), while the remainder of Kruger’s Starting Five accounted for a mere Fifteen Points. Though this style of play was enough grab the attention of the National Audience earlier in the season, it proved to be nothing short of a detriment against Big XII Competition, as the rest of the league found ways to harry Young at every turn, while rendering his Supporting Cast all but inert on a regular basis. Just look at the numbers in Conference Play; Young averaged 27.4 Points on a mediocre 39.4% Shooting from the Field, jacking up a staggering 20.2 Shots per Game, while committing 6.1 Assists. Think about that for a moment, folks: this kid is averaging nearly as many Turnovers as Field Goals in one of the toughest leagues in the country. Indeed, Kruger and Co. must be relieved to be stepping outside of the Big XII for the first time in three months, though they had better not sleep on the competition they will be facing in the Midwest Region, particularly today’s opponent Rhode Island, who is more than capable of exploiting the litany of weaknesses in their defense. Truth be told, these guys have left A LOT to be desired on this particular end of the court, particularly against their conference brethren, ranking dead-last in the Big XII in Points Allowed (83.9), both Field Goals (565) and Field Goals Attempted Allowed (1,229), and Total Rebounds Allowed (693), all the while giving the ball away a ridiculous 247 times, which unsurprisingly ranks at the bottom of the conference too. If a fresh start is how you wish to spin this to the masses, Lon, then that’s fine, but we think you’re going to need a different Gameplan than the one that perpetually disappointed for the past two months.
Meanwhile, though they largely dominated the Atlantic-10 in route to their first Regular Season Championship since the 1980-1981 Season, Rhode Island (25-7, 15-3 in Atlantic-10) began to slide with the finish line in sight, losing three of their final five contests, before surprisingly getting upset in the Conference Tournament Final, robbing them of an Automatic Bid to the NCAA Tournament. Dan Hurley’s charges met defeat in the waning moments of a 58-57 upset by Davidson, who otherwise wouldn’t have been selected to participate in the Big Dance had it not been for their performance in their Conference Tournament. The Regular Season Champions found themselves in a defensive slugfest, as both teams shot well below 40% from the Field, tired from the grind of three games in as many days. However, after going nearly Thirteen Minutes without a Field Goal, the Wildcats put on their dancing shoes after elegantly making a Baseline Floater with just over a minute left to play, robbing the Rams of a League Double. Turnovers were an issue for Rhode Island, who committed Fourteen in comparison to a dozen Assists, while only knocking down 9-of-17 Attempts from the Free-Throw Line. Senior Guard E.C. Matthews (13.1 PTS, 42.6% FG, 30.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 15.5 PER) led the way with Twenty Points on 7-of-16 Shooting from the Floor (43.8%), including 4-of-8 from Beyond the Arc (50.0%), along with Eight Rebounds and a Block, though he would be the only member of his team to break into double-figures. The team’s leading scorer, Jared Terrell (17.2 PTS, 43.6% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.5 STL, 20.4 PER), endured a miserable night, scoring just Five Points on an uninspiring 1-of-5 Shooting (20.0%), struggling with Foul Trouble throughout the affair. With that said, the Rams competed with the comfort that they knew that they would be in the Tournament regardless of last weekend’s outcome, with the only drama arising from that meeting in the Nation’s Capital being whether or not Hurley’s famous sibling, Arizona State Head Coach Bobby, would find his side’s at-large dreams shattered thanks to the loss. Fortunately for the Hurley Family, both brothers will be competing in this tourney, as the Sun Devils were one of the teams selected to compete in the First Four on Wednesday Night. Anyways, getting back to Rhode Island… this particular matchup with Oklahoma should make for an interesting contrast in styles, for while the Sooners will seek to turn up the tempo whenever they can, the Rams would prefer to keep things at a slow burn through the duration of the game. Simply put, few teams have been better keeping the opposition confined to the Half Court like these guys; Hurley’s charges have permitted the Twenty-Seventh Fewest Field Goal Attempts in the Country (52.2), including the Fourth-Fewest Three-Pointers Attempted (15.9), allowing them to force their opponent into lower percentage shots later in the shot clock. You really have to be patient when probing this Defense, and cautious to boot, for they’ve proven adept at forcing Turnovers, compiling 15.9 per Game, the Eighteenth-Most in the Nation. Again, this is NOT a good matchup for a Sooners team that wants to Run & Gun as much as possible, while struggling to protect the basketball. Furthermore, in starting Four Seniors, this is very much a veteran team that will be looking to build upon their success from last year’s Tourney, which marked their first Dance since 1999; last March, Rhode Island shocked another high-scoring outfit, Six-Seeded Creighton, in the First Round as an Eleven Seed (84-72), before nearly upsetting eventual Final Four participant Oregon in a tightly-contested 75-72 defeat.