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Joe Boozell | | February 21, 2018

Is Oklahoma in danger of missing the NCAA tournament?

Trae Young feeds off of fear

After a Jan. 13 win against TCU in which Trae Young scored 43 points, things were looking great for Oklahoma. The Sooners were 14-2 overall, 4-1 in conference, and had secured key wins over Wichita State and Texas Tech. A 1-seed in the NCAA tournament was a realistic goal; so was ending Kansas’ 13-year Big 12 championship streak.

That, um, feels like ages ago. Oklahoma is 2-9 since then and has lost six straight after a 30-point loss to Kansas. Young, once the runaway favorite to win the Naismith, is in a funk: he’s 5-for-his-last-33 from three-point range. That award race feels wide-open now.

We can debate the extent of Oklahoma’s fall and what it will mean on Selection Sunday. The Sooners have some huge wins, which we’ll get to. They’re also 16-11 and 6-9 in the Big 12, records which don't scream “surefire NCAA tournament team.”

Oklahoma doesn’t need to accomplish much the rest of the way in order to reach the dance. The problem is, the Sooners haven’t won since Jan. 30, and no Big 12 game is easy. If OU wins one more game and finishes 17-14 – a realistic scenario, based on how the Sooners have played lately – would they make the NCAA tournament?

Let’s take a look.

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Here is Oklahoma’s remaining schedule. The Sooners will also play in the Big 12 tournament.

Oklahoma ROS schedule
Date Opponent Current RPI ranking
Feb. 24 vs. Kansas State 56
Feb. 27 at Baylor 47
March 2 vs. Iowa State 100
Big 12 tournament TBD N/A

A few things to keep in mind:

-Alabama earned an at-large bid in 2006 with 17 wins. Since then, no team with 17 or fewer wins has earned an at-large bid.
-The most losses any at-large team ever had is 14, which has happened 11 times (five in 2011 alone).
-However, Oklahoma has six Quadrant 1 wins. Only 10 teams have as many or more than that. Even if a 17-14 overall record looks uninspiring, the Sooners’ array of quality wins is the reason we’re having this discussion.
-When the selection committee released its top 16 teams on Feb. 11, Oklahoma was a 4-seed. Since then, the Sooners are 0-3 with road losses to Texas Tech and Kansas and a home loss to Texas. Of course, you’d like to win at least one of those – but road losses to the Red Raiders and Jayhawks aren’t terribly damaging.

With that in mind, let’s go over possible rest-of-season scenarios and what each would mean for Oklahoma’s tournament hopes.

Win three or more games

Easily in. The Sooners would likely earn a mid-level seed in this case.

Win two games

It gets interesting, but safely in. Oklahoma has wins over Kansas, Texas Tech and Wichita State, the last of which was on the road. 1990 Villanova was the last team to get an at-large bid with an 18-14 record, but given where the committee seeded Oklahoma on Feb. 11, it’d likely be fine.

Win one game

The toughest scenario to predict, and remember: not all wins are created equal. A road win over Baylor would be much more significant than a home win against Iowa State.

It would depend how much the committee weighs good wins vs. total losses. If good wins trump all, Oklahoma is in even if it doesn’t win again based on its Quadrant 1 damage. But if a 17-14 record is just too much to ignore based on the other bubble teams, the Sooners could get left out.

We mentioned that 2006 Alabama was the last 17-win team to earn an at-large bid; Kansas State did the same in 1990, while 2001 Georgia and 1991 Villanova got in with 16 wins.

But there are far more 16 and 17-win teams that have missed the dance; those four are the exception to the rule. This is the most intriguing scenario by far, and perhaps the most likely.

Go winless

Oklahoma would go into Selection Sunday having lost 10 games in a row in this scenario. No team has earned an at-large bid with 15 losses. It feels like a stretch to include the Sooners in this case, but of course it’s all relative to the other bubble teams.

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That’s the resume analysis. But something we shouldn't gloss over: at its peak, Oklahoma was one of the 10 best teams in America. The Sooners aren't guaranteed to struggle like this the rest of the way. How can OU fix this on the floor?

A few ideas:

-Young is the offense’s driving force, and he’s struggled lately. But he’ll play better if his teammates are more assertive. When teams double Young out of ball screens -- a common practice lately -- OU is playing four on three. That’s a huge advantage! We know Christian James, Kameron McGusty and Brady Manek can shoot. The next step: at least one of those guys needs to be able to catch the ball with a head of steam and make plays for others. That will open up an offense that desperately needs opening up.

-This isn’t scientific, but Young needs to regain his swagger. He needs to jack the occasional 30-footer without fear of firing an air ball. What made the Sooners’ offense so special early in the season was that defenses had to guard them almost all the way out to half-court, which created tons of space.

-There’s a balance here: if Oklahoma can’t score consistently when playing four on three, it’s doomed anyway. But combine Young's ridiculousness with empowered teammates, and OU could regain its rhythm. He’s not going to be able to score as much as he did earlier based on the defenses he’s seeing. But Young can pick his spots to be aggressive in ways that 99 percent of point guards couldn’t dream of.   

-Significantly increased defensive effort. Even at their apex, the Sooners weren’t a great defensive team, but they’ve sunk all the way to 108th on that end after allowing 104 points to Kansas. The group has limitations, but it can be a top-60 defense with maximum effort.

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Oklahoma is one of the most fascinating teams we’ve ever seen. In the first few months of the season, it looked like the Sooners were playing a different sport than their foes – in a good way.

They’ve since fallen on tough times. Oklahoma can hush some of this talk by winning two of its last three regular season games. But if it doesn’t, Selection Sunday could be filled with anxiety for the Sooners.

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