Two teams heading into the NCAA Tournament with plenty to prove square off in the Midwest Region. Rhode Island, in the Tournament for a second consecutive March, aims to advance to the second round once again and validate the naysayers questioning Oklahoma's inclusion in the field of 68.
Though the Sooners endured a shaky finish to the regular season, going 4-11 in the last two months, they have the pieces to come alive at the most critical time. Trae Young, the nation's leader in both points and assists, is the kind of rare talent capable of carrying a dark horse during this most unpredictable of months.
Midwest Region: No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners (18-13) vs. No. 7 Rhode Island Rams (25-7)
Time: 12:15 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh)
Keys for Oklahoma
Although much of the attention from a national perspective focused on Trae Young, both in Oklahoma's wins but especially during its losses, a recurring theme had little to do with perimeter play.
The Sooners gave up offensive rebounds en masse in losses: 10 to Texas Tech and Kansas, 13 vs. Baylor and Iowa State, 15 to West Virginia. Rhode Island isn't a team that's particularly strong on the glass, particularly on the offensive end. The Rams rank No. 98 in offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom.com. Big man Andre Berry has the ability to cause havoc on the interior, along with talented guard E.C. Matthews crashing from the perimeter. Denying them second-chance points is critical if Oklahoma's to dictate tempo.
And, indeed, establishing the pace is crucial for a Sooners victory. The Sooners flourish when playing a wide-open brand of basketball, which suits Young's style. Conversely, Rhode Island employs a more methodical approach on the offensive end. Surrendering offensive boards only exacerbates that disparity.
Keys for Rhode Island
No one could have blamed Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley had he fist-pumped on Selection Sunday; not that he would, but the Rams drawing Oklahoma meant an opening matchup that played heavily into one of their greatest strengths.
Rhode Island forced opponents into turnovers on 22.8 percent of possessions; the fifth-best such defense in all of college basketball. As Oklahoma went on its skid during Big 12 play, the Sooners struggled mightily with giveaways.
Oklahoma's pace-of-play ranks among the fastest in the nation — according to KenPom.com, the Sooners' average possession lasts just 14 seconds — which can be either a detriment or benefit for the Rams. Rhode Island surrendered 87 points in a narrow win over Saint Joseph's at the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and played a number of tight games down the stretch with seemingly overmatched opponents who pushed the tempo.
But if the Rams can successful turn the Sooners' speed into sloppiness, Rhode Island should cruise.
While Rhode Island endured some ups and downs at the very end of its schedule, the Rams were largely consistent en route to a 25-7 finish. No one would dare use the word "consistent" to describe anything about Oklahoma, save for the consistently gaudy numbers Young put up — and even those were susceptible to wild fluctuation in Big 12 play.
Though the Sooners seem to possess the pieces necessary for a deep Tournament run, it's difficult asking a team to find rhythm suddenly after showing none for two months. This is doubly true against a quality opponent like Rhode Island.
Expect a big game out of former Oklahoma State signee and leading scorer Jared Terrell, and expect the Rams' pressure defense to frustrate the turnover-prone Sooners.
Prediction: Rhode Island 83, Oklahoma 66
(Top photo by Mitchell Leff, courtesy of www.rhody.com)