OU men's basketball: Sooners await postseason fate after rebounding woes linger in latest loss

West Virginia's Logan Routt, left, and Oklahoma's Kristian Doolittle (21) chase the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Big 12 men's tournament Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo.

KANSAS CITY — Oklahoma’s postseason fate remains in the selection committee’s hands.

The Sooners (19-13) missed an opportunity to reasonably lock down an NCAA Tournament at-large bid Wednesday after losing 72-71 to West Virginia in their Big 12 tournament opener.

“This game could have sealed the deal,” Christian James said. “... I just want to see [my teammates] get a chance to see what it's like to go to the NCAA Tournament. It's going to be a stressful couple of days, a lot of praying and hope we get a bid and go far in the tournament.”

A tournament berth isn’t out of the question, but OU’s early departure allows plenty of time to think of what went wrong and what can improve.

The answer might be as simple as rebounding the ball better.

The Sooners have only outrebounded one of their opponents since the start of February. They managed to win four games during the span, but are 6-12 when recording fewer rebounds than opponents. They are 13-1 when winning the boards.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a shock that OU struggled on the glass against West Virginia, considering the Mountaineers already did it twice this season to the Sooners.

But this isn’t a “playing West Virginia” problem or solely an OU problem, says coach Lon Kruger.

“[It's] a little of both," Kruger said. "West Virginia always hangs their hat on rebounding and they’ve always throughout the year is rebound the ball well. We’ve got to do a better job regardless if it’s West Virginia or anyone else.”

The solution to OU’s rebounding struggles might be a residual effect of an overlying issue.

Junior Kristian Doolittle was asked where Wednesday’s game got away from OU, which he used as a chance to address the Sooners' effort.

“I would say we were lacking emotion and fight from the beginning of the game, which is something that can't happen,” he said. “We were playing catch-up. We knew going into this game that West Virginia was going to be crashing the glass and playing really hard. That's what they pride themselves on.”

The Sooners don’t have a reliable double-digit rebounder, although, the 2009 roster — which featured then-sophomore Blake Griffin, who averaged 14.4 boards per game — is the only OU team to have such a player this century.

But the Sooners also play plenty of "small ball" with their only true center, Jamuni McNeace, who is dealing with an ankle injury. He rolled his ankle midway through the second half of Wednesday’s loss, and his status is unclear going forward.

For now, OU must rely on an undersized front court and be mindful of the glass with its next opponent unknown.

“It’s just something you have to keep a conscious effort about,” junior Rashard Odomes said. “It’s nothing that we can’t do. It’s not like we’re not capable, we [beat West Virginia] when they came to Norman. So, we were capable of doing it, we just didn’t execute it.”

Buettner writes for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.