KANSAS CITY, Mo. — And now the Sooners wait. Which should come naturally. The Sooners did a lot of waiting Thursday.
Waiting for a ball to bounce their direction, while Iowa State treated any free ball like a reconnaissance mission. Waiting for the Cyclones to return to their reputation as softies who wouldn't attack the paint or defend it. Waiting for someone to make a basket and stop the bleeding.
Never happened, and Iowa State caught the Sooners and won going away, 73-66 in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals at the Sprint Center, a verdict that lifts the burden of NCAA Tournament uncertainty off the Cyclones' shoulders and squarely onto the Sooners'.
OU, now with a 20-11 record, entered the day ranked 33rd in the RPI, as good a guide as any to college hoops hierarchy, and a strength of schedule ranked 15th. So the Sooners still should be safely in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, to be announced Sunday.
But you never know. And OU very well could have played itself into one of those cursed play-in games in Dayton, Ohio.
“We're always going to be nervous about it,” said OU star Romero Osby, one of the few Sooners who displayed tenacity against I-State. “But we hope we're in. We think we should be in. But it's not about us. It's about the committee and what they feel. And we have lost two straight games, so they're going to look at that. But hopefully we're still able to make it.”
Since we're hoping, let's hope the committee wasn't watching this game — unlikely, considering OU athletic director Joe Castiglione is on the committee. It's not just that the Sooners lost. It's the way they lost. OU blew a 12-point lead in the final eight minutes, which doesn't seem like much compared to that 22-point collapse at Texas 15 days prior but is massive in any other context.
Worse yet, OU lost because it was outworked. The Cyclones, known as 3-point bombardiers, were a step quicker and a pound stronger. They grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, outscored OU 18-11 in second-chance points and outscored OU 36-18 in the paint.
This Sooner team can't get outworked. It loses if it gets outworked.
The Cyclones warmed up from 3-point range, making four of their last five to finish 7-of-26. So let's review. Iowa State outscored the Sooners 21-9 on 3-pointers and 36-18 in the paint. That's a 57-27 advantage. That's a lot of ground to make up on not-close 2-point shots, and OU didn't.
“They got a lot of loose balls down the stretch,” said Osby, who led OU with 18 points and nine rebounds. “A lot of loose balls that we were getting in the first half, they ended up being quicker to them in the second half. Even when we were up 12 or 13, they were still getting those loose balls and putting them back in or putting a lot of pressure on us.”
And coach Lon Kruger didn't help. His tactics backfired. With 7:42 left and OU up 60-48, Kruger gave Osby his first second-half rest. By the time Kruger rushed Osby back, the Cyclones had reeled off seven straight points. OU was out of offensive rhythm and never regained it; the Sooners went five straight possessions without scoring after Osby's departure, and OU didn't make a basket the last 8:10 of the game, during which it was outscored 25-6.
Yet with four timeouts in his pocket, Kruger didn't use one during Iowa State's spree. The rabid Iowa State fan base kept its team juiced, and momentum never left the Cyclones.
“You can always look back, say, liked to have made this shot or liked to have had a timeout here, liked to have run something differently,” Kruger said. “No question, that's always going through your mind.”
So now the Sooners wait, and their attitude was alarming. Both Osby and point guard Sam Grooms mentioned that at least OU was headed for some kind of post-season tournament. Hey, guys. The NIT is not an option. Not on any real basis. The Sooners haven't been to the NCAAs since 2009; it's time that drought ended.
“I think we did enough to be able to be in,” Grooms said.
I agree. I think the Sooners are in. But now they're on a two-game losing streak, thanks to that ridiculous loss at TCU. The Sooners have given the committee reason to pause.
“Obviously, a lot of it depends on upsets and other games,” Kruger said. “But I'd like to think this group's deserved an opportunity.”
But only for how they played most of the season. Not for the way they played against Iowa State.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.