SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Contending for a Big 12 regular season title and earning a respectable seed in the NCAA tournament was all supposed to come a year from now for Oklahoma, when it wouldn't rely so heavily on inexperienced players.
Leave it to Lon Kruger to find the right mix, with a freshman point guard running the show, a trio of sophomores carrying the scoring load and a senior in Cameron Clark holding it all together.
There's a good reason Kruger was voted the Big 12 coach of the year and has the fifth-seeded Sooners (23-9) set for a matchup Thursday against No. 12 seed North Dakota State (25-6) in the West Region.
Kruger is, after all, the only coach in NCAA history to take five schools to the tournament.
"They love to play, they love being in the gym, they have been able to focus on trying to make progress one day to the next, not just game to game, but they have practiced well," Kruger said. "I think that's resulted in the progress that they have made."
While the Sooners lean on youth, North Dakota State is in the NCAA tournament for a second time because of experience. The Bison start three seniors, led by Summit League player of the year Taylor Braun, who was on the verge of playing Division II hoops at Western Oregon before being offered a Division I career by NDSU.
NDSU coach Saul Phillips is trying to let his players enjoy every aspect of the tournament after winning the Summit League title. He enjoyed his moment in the spotlight Wednesday.
"Listen, we only get so many chances to have this stage, right? I mean, let's face it, we do," Philips said. "I'm going to enjoy it. This is great."
Here are five other things to watch as the Sooners look for their first NCAA tourney win since 2009 and the Bison their first in school history:
TAYLOR TIME: Braun was convinced he was a Division I player even if it was mostly Division II schools giving him offers.
The only offer ended up coming from North Dakota State. He visited the school during finals when campus life was dormant. The offer to play there came, and while he accepted it, the situation was far from ideal.
"I wasn't overly thrilled with ... just everything about it, but I (knew) I wanted to be a Division I player and this was the opportunity I was given and I took it and it has been amazing," Braun said. "I wouldn't change it for anything.