Oklahoma guard Trae Young was bent over with his hands covering his eyes as the TBS NCAA tournament selection show announced the Sooners were going dancing.
With his elbows firmly dug into his thighs, he celebrated with clenched fists, a show of relief, as the rest of the team jumped with jubilation at Lloyd Noble Center.
Young stood up, the unusual feeling of angst gone, as he slapped hands and bumped chests with walk-on freshman Chris Giles. Young likes being in control. It’s part of the reason why he went to OU, where he could lead the nation with a 37.2 usage rate, one of the largest roles in the history of college basketball, but for five minutes, he could do nothing but watch and hope.
“I was nervous, very anxious to see if our name would be called,” Young said. “I felt comfortable for this whole week, throughout this process, up until the last minute and a half. Once they called our name, all of my emotions let go.”
But there was no reason to worry. The Sooners (18-13, 8-10 Big 12) weren’t even among the last four in, thus escaping a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio on either Tuesday or Wednesday to join the field of 64. Instead, OU was named the 10-seed in the Midwest region and will face 7-seed Rhode Island Thursday in Pittsburgh.
In the end, OU’s schedule set it apart. The Sooners had a top-50 RPI ranking, and with the committee’s new quadrant formula, which ranks wins and losses against competition based on venue, they touted six Quadrant 1 wins and just one Quadrant 3 loss with no Quadrant 4 losses.
OU might have lost six in a row at one point, and finished the season losing 9 of 11, but recent performance wasn’t part of the selection criteria.
So, OU was ranked ahead of the last four in — UCLA (21-11, three Quadrant 1 wins, two Quadrant 3 losses), St. Bonaventure (25-7, three Quadrant 1 wins, two Quadrant 3 losses, one Quadrant 4 loss), Arizona State (20-11, four Quadrant 1 wins, two Quadrant 3 losses) and Syracuse (20-13, four Quadrant 1 wins, two Quadrant 3 losses) — and the first four out — Baylor (18-14, four Quadrant 1 wins, one Quadrant 3 loss), Notre Dame (20-14, two Quadrant 1 wins, three Quadrant 3 losses), St. Mary’s (28-5, two Quadrant 1 wins, two Quadrant 3 losses), and Southern Cal (23-11, three Quadrant 1 wins, one Quadrant 3 loss, one Quadrant 4 loss).
Still, immediately after OU’s first-round matchup was announced, TBS analyst Charles Barkley said, “I do not think they deserve to be in the tournament. They’re going to lose to Rhode Island.”
He wasn’t the only one. In between knowing the Sooners were in and finding out the first-round matchup, Giles turned to a teammate and said, “Twitter mad, man” while scrolling through his phone.
“I know our team has a big chip on its shoulder,” Young said. “Me personally, I have a tremendous chip on my shoulder. I hear a lot of things. Not a lot of people think we should be in, which is fine. The people that make those decisions thought we should be. I think if you put a blind resume up, we would be in.”
For Young, a projected lottery pick in the upcoming draft, this is likely his only chance to play in the tournament. For the rest of his teammates and coaches, that’s not the case. It is coach Lon Kruger’s fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in seven years at OU. Forward Khadeem Lattin, OU’s lone senior, will be making his third trip, and perhaps surprisingly, he was as laid back as anyone going into Sunday.
“I’m a relaxed type of guy,” Lattin said. “I try not to stress too much. When they called our name, I was just excited. I just felt that energy.”
While it was a stressful day, the Sooners got what they wanted: another chance. To make the most of it, they have to get back to playing the way they did in December, the way that forced the NCAA tournament committee to include them Sunday.