OKLAHOMA CITY — “They’re good but they’re not great.”
That’s not a hot press row take on second-seeded Oklahoma’s (sometimes) struggles with an obscure Western Athletic Conference school Friday afternoon.
That’s a direct quote from one Dixon Kummer, a fan who was seated directly behind us on that press row Friday afternoon. The Bakersfield native yelled his lungs out for his Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners, providing a running 40 minutes of hell for those in proximity during Oklahoma’s 82-68 NCAA first round win.
“Did you see how quiet this arena was … ?” Kummer said proudly. “We better have some respect in Oklahoma because they were quiet.”
He had a point. The Roadrunners hit the Sooners with an opening punch in the face that was growing into a fairly ugly black eye by the second half. All of it suggested the second-place team from the WAC was capable in what amounted to a true road game 20 miles from the OU campus.
For long stretches, the Roadrunners wanted it more.
But respect is one thing, getting the message is another. Kummer the fan was merely repeating what Roadrunners center Aly Ahmed told reporters the day before the game. Ahmed reiterated it afterward.
“Everybody in Oklahoma saw that interview — they’re good but not great because this little team from Bakersfield,” he said.
“The expectation for [Oklahoma] was very high. The expectation was that they were going to beat us by 20. I knew my team, how they fight …
“That was the point. If they were great, they would beat us by 20 or 30.”
This from a native of Egypt, by way of Midland (Texas) College — a juco — who looked on Friday like he could play in the Big 12. Yes, Oklahoma eventually pulled away. And yes, Buddy was Buddy (Hield) with 27 points.
But the Roadrunners led with less than 15 minutes to go. They were within four with four minutes left.
“If they didn’t outplay us, they certainly played even,” OU coach Lon Kruger said.
“I felt like we could beat them,” Roadrunners forward Kevin Mays said. “That was just the vibe in the locker room.
“It’s impossible to play harder than us.”
That would have been nice for Michigan State to consider going into the Middle Tennessee game. But do we have to keep reminding these tournament favorites?
“It’s March,” Hield said. “Teams are going to keeping and nobody’s going to go away, really.”
The Sooners definitely have holes. Most everyone does. The key is playing around them long around enough to survive. Oklahoma’s inside game can be lacking at this crucial time of year where 6-foot-9 Khadeem Lattin is not quite a well-rounded force. Ryan Spangler is a rebounding machine but is not even a 63 percent free-throw shooter. (One of five on Friday).
They have size — one Roadrunners shot was blocked into the face of a cameraman — but they don’t always have continuity.
“I know they’re at home,” Lattin said of Friday’s opponent, “and we’re playing Sunday.”
Holes can turn into chasms when they’re exploited in the NCAA Tournament. The memory should be fresh from last week when West Virginia frustrated the heck out of the Sooners in the Big 12 Tournament.
“I don’t think they have to do it all,” said Rod Barnes, a former National Coach of the Year at Ole Miss, in his fifth season in Bakersfield. “Buddy can put the ball on the floor. [Isaiah] Cousins can create.
“What they do that makes them so special to me is they spread you out so well. The thing I thought was the key to the game they made some shots when they need to.”
Yes, there is that. After the Roadrunners took that one-point lead, Cousins (16 points), Hield and Dante Buford (nine points) fired in consecutive 3s to push the lead to nine. As a result of that 10-0 run, the Sooners never trailed again.
“It shows that everyone is mortal,” Lattin said. “Our guards, they can really shoot. Not just Buddy.”
The Roadrunners got here by beating WAC champ New Mexico State in the conference tournament. But their body of work included wins over San Diego Christian, Fresno Pacific, Menlo College and Utah Valley.
Oklahoma got here because Kruger made them a national program again. They were ranked No. 1 during the season. Hield is no secret. Neither is how OU is going to have to win.
During this 30th anniversary season of the 3-point shot in college, the Sooners Friday topped 800 3-point attempts for the first time in Kruger’s coaching career.
Hield is the nation’s most productive 3-point shooter (averaging four per game). Oklahoma is third nationally in 3-point percentage. The Sooners shot 8 of 11 from the arc in the second half to pull away, clinching the second most accurate 3-point performance (11 of 20) in the program’s tournament history.
If you have to be told, well, you shouldn’t. This is how OU is going to have to win this month (and beyond). The question is, can they?
“They have the potential to be a Final Four team,” Barnes said. “They have a dude by the name of Buddy who can separate you at any minute. We got four minutes to go and he just separates his team from us. That’s what great players do.
“[They’ve got] a player who can totally take over a game. They’ve got enough other guys.”
We thought that about Michigan State too.
“It’s tough that they lost,” Hield said of the Spartans, “but we’re on a mission.”