NORMAN — There were no wild celebrations at Lloyd Noble Center about 5:15 p.m. Sunday when Oklahoma’s initial matchup for the NCAA Tournament popped onto the large screen in front of where the team was seated.
“It’s a little bit different,” senior Cam Clark said. “Last year, we were just waiting for our name to see if we made the tournament. This year, we kind of knew we were going to make the tournament. We’re trying to take the next step.”
A year after being bounced in the “second round” by San Diego State, the Sooners’ path looks much better this time around.
Oklahoma is a No. 5 seed in the West region, where the Sooners will take on No. 12 seed North Dakota State at 6:27 p.m. on Thursday.
With a win, OU would face the winner of No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 13 New Mexico State.
After the announcement, Sooners coach Lon Kruger said he didn’t know much about North Dakota State outside of casually catching a couple of Bison games on television.
“Coach (Saul) Phillips does a great job,” Kruger said. “I’ve watched his teams over the years. We know that’ll be a big challenge on Thursday.”
The North Dakota State athletic program has been primarily known for its football team, which has won three consecutive Football Championship Subdivision national titles and has beaten FBS schools in each of the last four seasons, including last year over Kansas State.
Phillips’ team won the Summit League regular-season and tournament titles with an offense that is one of the nation’s most efficient. The Bison lead the nation with a 50.9 shooting percentage.
The Sooners will have to handle 6-foot-7 senior guard Taylor Braun. He leads the Bison with 18.3 points per game and also averages 5.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
“Judging this team off the game I watched Tuesday night — and what little I’ve seen of Braun in online Synergy video — he seems like arguably the most valuable player to his team in the country,” CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander wrote about Braun last week.
North Dakota State has won 14 of its last 15 games. The Bison have not lost since Feb. 1 to Denver. The No. 12 seed is the highest for a Summit League team since 1997, when Valparaiso was also a 12.
“We have guys who believe they can win against anybody,” Phillips told The Associated Press. “That’s a good place to be.”
If the Sooners avoid the upset, they would likely face San Diego State. The Aztecs were a No. 7 seed last season when they beat the 10th-seeded Sooners.
That game would be a contrast in styles. While the Sooners have the seventh-best scoring offense in the country with 82.2 points per game, the Aztecs have the second-best scoring defense in the country. San Diego State is allowing just 56.6 points per game.
“We have a bad taste in our mouth from Baylor last week (in the Big 12 Tournament),” sophomore guard Buddy Hield said. “We’re trying to get a postseason win ... I haven’t won in the postseason. Cam as well. We’re just trying to set the tone in starting a new chapter.”