After missing the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, the 23-9 Oklahoma men's basketball team is making its second straight appearance under head coach Lon Kruger. The Sooners were named Sunday as the No. 5 seed in the event's West Region and will take on No. 12 seed North Dakota State (25-6) on Thursday, March 20, in Spokane, Wash. (tip time TBA).
If OU wins its tournament opener, it will play Saturday against the winner of Thursday's contest between No. 4 seed San Diego State (29-4) and No. 13 seed New Mexico State (26-9). Games will be played at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
The Sooners, who finished in second place in the Big 12 Conference with a 12-6 mark, are making their 28th NCAA Tournament appearance. Their 24 appearances since 1983 are the second most in the Big 12 during the span behind Kansas' 30.
"It's an exciting time of the year, and I'm really happy for these guys," said Kruger, who is making his 15th trip to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach (owns a 14-14 record). "They've worked hard and made consistent progress throughout the year. They've played good basketball -- their best basketball -- in the last month of the season. It's an honor to be playing in the tournament."
Last year, Kruger became the first head coach in Division I history to guide five programs to the NCAA Tournament. Now he has taken all five programs to at least two appearances and is looking to become the first to coach five programs to at least one NCAA Tournament win. Kruger has led Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV all to at least one victory in the Big Dance. He guided K-State to the 1988 Elite Eight, Florida to the 1994 Final Four and UNLV to the 2007 Sweet 16.
Leading the Sooners into Thursday's game will be sophomore guard Buddy Hield and senior forward Cameron Clark. Hield, a second-team All-Big 12 selection, is averaging a team-high 16.8 points and ranks sixth in OU single-season history with his 86 3-pointers (shooting .397). Clark, a third-team all-league pick, is averaging 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds a contest, and has the team's top three scoring efforts this season (32 vs. Kansas and Michigan State and 31 vs. UT Arlington).
"We feel more ready (than last season)," said Hield, who has made at least three 3-pointers in 10 of the last 11 games. "We're just trying to go up there and play our hardest. We are trying to get a postseason win, and we are excited to start a new chapter."
Added Clark, "We're not thinking about just getting into the tournament. We're focused on winning two games (in Spokane), and right now we are focused on winning this first game and taking care of business Thursday."
Thursday's game will mark OU's first against North Dakota State. The Bison, coached by Saul Phillips, finished 12-2 in the Summit League. They have won 14 of their last 15 games.
"North Dakota State is a really good basketball team, and Coach Phillips does a great job," said Kruger. "We know that it will be a big challenge on Thursday."
OU has played 16 games against teams this season in the NCAA Tournament field and went 10-6 in those contests.
The Sooners own a 36-27 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament and have made four Final Four appearances (1939, 1947, 1988 and 2002), three Elite Eight showings and four Sweet 16 appearances. They reached the national championship game in 1947 and 1988.