Like Missouri, Oklahoma notched a few marquee victories and appeared poised to earn a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament as recently as mid-February. The Sooners have since struggled down the stretch, losing five of their final six games. Missouri, meanwhile, has lost six of its last nine. The two teams will meet Saturday night in the 8-9 game of the West region, with the winner likely facing No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga.
So, what has to happen for one of these two teams to reverse the trend and advance to the Round of 32? We asked five questions of Bob Przybylo, who covers Oklahoma basketball for SoonerScoop.com, to get a better understanding of how the Tigers match up with the Sooners.
NOTE: These answers were submitted prior to Wednesday’s news that Oklahoma second-leading scorer De’Vion Harmon will not play in Saturday’s game due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Przybylo: Head coach Lon Kruger has been quick to say not much has changed in terms of what OU was doing in January in winning back-to-back-to-back games against top 10 teams and what it’s doing now in losing five of the last six games.
But all the little changes that have been occurring are for the negative. The Sooners aren’t locking down on defense as much. OU isn’t valuing each and every possession, sometimes looking extremely flat for long stretches of time. And the less said about late-game offensive execution, the better. It has been terrible the last three weeks.
The Sooners have to trust each other again and stay committed. The free-flowing offense that was so fun to watch midway through the season has gotten so bogged down and predictable, especially in the final minutes of games.
The coaches and players continue to say all the right things about believing in each other and moving forward to the next play, but there hasn’t been a real example to show that on the court in quite a while.
2. Mizzou fans will remember Austin Reaves from last year’s meeting between these two teams, when he had 19 points and 10 rebounds. He earned first-team all-Big 12 honors this year. What’s the scouting report on him? What should Missouri try to do to slow him down?
Przybylo: Reaves can do everything for OU, and that sometimes is to the detriment of the Sooners, strangely enough. If Mizzou makes Reaves a one-man team, he’s going to put up numbers, and OU will be flying back to Norman on Saturday evening.
Slowing him down means not letting him get others involved because that’s when OU is really humming along. When you don’t know who is going to attack and make the play. It can’t be like last Thursday vs. Kansas where Reaves took the final eight shots for the team, going 1 of 8 in that span.
He’s more point guard than shooter than he has ever been before in his career. He’ll look to get others involved, at least initially. The Tigers would be wise to try to make Reaves believe he has to play hero ball to win.
3. Missouri is at its best when it can get Jeremiah Tilmon going down low. Does Oklahoma have anyone who can bang with Tilmon in the low post?
Przybylo: No, not really. Brady Manek has been defending out of position all season long, so nothing is going to change there. It’ll be some sort of combination of Manek, Kur Kuath and Victor Iwuakor trying to slow down Tilmon.
Kuath isn’t a great one-on-one defender, but he is fantastic at protecting the room, altering shots and blocking at least one or two per game.
Post defense has been a huge issue for OU throughout the season, especially during this recent skid. It can sometimes be traded off if Manek is hitting offensively, but it’s almost a given there will be low post troubles for the Sooners and Kruger will have to make some sort of adjustment.
4. Besides Reaves, who are the players to watch for Oklahoma? Does the team have any one guy who serves as the x-factor, per se?
Przybylo: You start with Manek, who has been around forever and feels as though he’s getting his footing after having COVID-19 during the season. But he has to make some early shots for his confidence to be up. When he’s missing, despite all his experience, OU is a better team with him on the bench.
Then there’s sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon and what he has brought to the table all season is the ability to start incredibly fast. When Harmon gets going early, usually the Sooners do as well.
But if you ask me, the X-factor is always Elijah Harkless. If he scores 8-10 points, great, but what he does is set the defensive tone. When OU is playing really well, Harkless is getting three or four steals and allowing Harmon and others to get rolling in transition.
Harkless is so aggressive defensively that he can run into foul trouble often, so it’s always an intriguing start to the game to figure out how the refs are going to call things.
5. Give me one or two keys to the game for Oklahoma. The Sooners advance to the Round of 32 if…
Przybylo: Is it too easy to say make shots? Suppose so, but sometimes it’s just that simple. OU can just hit incredibly long cold stretches. If the Sooners can shoot at least better than 40 percent from the field, they’ll be in position to win, if nothing else.
You can flip it, too, defensively and say if OU limits Missouri to under 40 percent, that should be a win. But we’ll go with steals and turnovers. That’s where Harkless needs to get this team going. Getting at least eight steals and 13 turnovers would be a good recipe to move on and advance to face Gonzaga.