SPOKANE, Wash. — Buddy Hield hunched over in his chair and looked at the floor.
Isaiah Cousins and Je’lon Hornbeak leaned back in their chairs, looking toward the ceiling, hoping to find answers.
Other players in the OU locker room buried their faces in their hands, trying to deal with the Sooners’ 80-75 overtime loss to North Dakota State on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Sooners were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 this season, but their strong offense — keyed by solid 3-point shooting and a drive-and-kick offense that opened things up for the outside game — led Oklahoma to a second-place finish in the Big 12.
In the end, the Sooners’ defensive problems and the inability of the offense to get drives going toward the rim, left OU eliminated after its first game of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
The path to improvement — and getting a postseason win for the first time in the Lon Kruger coaching era — is simple, Cousins said.
“We’ve got to learn how to be a better defensive team and really focus on defense and really focus on ending those possessions with key rebounds,” Cousins said. “That’s the biggest step in our progression.”
Cousins should know.
It was his improvement on that end of the floor that helped kick start the Sooners’ 5-1 regular-season finish that included wins over Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas.
Once again, though, the Sooners failed to maintain that momentum in the postseason.
Last season, it was a loss at TCU in the regular-season finale that snowballed into a setback to Iowa State in a Big 12 Tournament opener. A first-round NCAA Tournament loss to San Diego State followed.
The North Dakota State team the Sooners lost to on Thursday was an experienced group with seniors all over the floor.
Oklahoma, by comparison, didn’t have near as much experience.
Its starting lineup included a freshman point guard, two sophomore guards and a redshirt sophomore forward, who hadn’t played in a game in nearly two years. A freshman, a sophomore and a redshirt junior, who hadn’t played Division I basketball before the season, made up three of the four rotation spots off the bench.
“I feel like maturity’s going to be a big part of our growth in the offseason,” said Jordan Woodard, the freshman point guard. “We’ve got a lot of young guys this season, but next year I feel like we’re going to be a more veteran team. That’s going to help us win more ball games.”
The Sooners graduate just two seniors and will have one next year. The label of “inexperienced” will be off this team next season.
“There are times we just needed one shot to go down, one stop here,” Hornbeak said. “I’m confident we can do it.”