After an arduous eight months, Oklahoma returns to postseason spotlight vs. Missouri

Reprising an old Big Eight and Big 12 rivalry, the Sooners and the Tigers meet in Indianapolis to earn a shot at Gonzaga and a Cinderella Sweet Sixteen bid
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Umoja Gibson and Jalen Hill

Umoja Gibson and Jalen Hill

INDIANAPOLIS — Eight months of work has built toward this one moment.

When No. 8-seed Oklahoma takes the court Saturday against 9-seed Missouri in a first-round NCAA Tournament game, OU hopes to make worthwhile the struggles of playing basketball through a once-in-a-century pandemic.

HOW TO WATCH: 8 OU vs. 9 Missouri - Saturday, 6:25 p.m., TNT

The Tigers (16-9 overall, 8-8 SEC) and Sooners (15-10, 9-8 Big 12) tip off at 6:25 p.m. inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the shining centerpiece of this great Midwestern crossroads that now stands as a new flavor of basketball Americana.

All 68 teams are here, but very few fans. But that's fine. Unlike 2020, this year's NCAA Tournament has roared to life and is racing into the first turn.

Gentlemen, start your bubbles.

The road to the Big Dance was long, filled with nasal swabs, relentless mask wearing, stress over COVID results and the silent scourge of contact tracing that too often follows a positive outcome. Forgoing all aspects of normal life for a college student, all the precautions, all the drastic measures, all the quarantines steadily built a path for  the Sooners to make their 33rd appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

But even through all the rigorous distancing procedures, Oklahoma didn't enter the tournament bubble unscathed.

Upon arrival in Indianapolis, sophomore guard and All Big-12 Honorable Mention De’Vion Harmon tested positive for COVID-19, and as a result will miss at least the first weekend of the tournament.

READ MORE: All hands on deck for Oklahoma to replace De'Vion Harmon

READ MORE: Video games, Netflix and homework: OU thriving amidst NCAA bubble protocols

READ MORE: For Umoja Gibson and Elijah Harkless, this is why they came to Oklahoma

“He’s disappointed, of course, yet he’s in quarantine now so no one sees him,” OU head coach Lon Kruger said in a video press conference on Wednesday. “Just heartbroken he won’t have that opportunity this first weekend. Challenge our guys to go win a couple, I guess, to get back for the second weekend, but a lot of work ahead for that, for sure.”

As they’ve done four other times this season, the Sooners must press through the COVID without one of their leaders.

Blake Seacat, Umoja Gibson and Austin Reaves

Blake Seacat, Umoja Gibson and Austin Reaves

Awaiting them is their former Big Eight and Big 12 Conference foes from Missouri.

Over in the SEC, the Tigers' season mirrored Oklahoma’s highs and lows.

Without high expectations, Missouri found itself in the AP Top 10 in the middle of February before dropping four of its last seven games.

“They're very much like a Big 12 team,” Kruger said. “They're very physical defensively. They've got good guard play. They've got the big guy inside that you have to give that extra attention to. It's an 8-9 game, so those are always expected to be tough. So no surprises for our guys. They know what lies ahead and it's going to be a tough battle”

Also led by an explosive guard, the Sooners will have to contain First Team All-SEC selection Dru Smith. Leading the way for the Tigers, Smith averaged a team high 14.1 points, 3.9 assists and 2.0 steals per game, while also adding 3.5 rebounds per contest.

“He’s a really good player. Coaching staff has kept saying that, over and over again, about how he affects the game in a lot of different aspects,” senior guard Austin Reaves said. “He can score, he can rebound, facilitates, plays defense. Really an all-around player.”

In trying to hold Smith in check, the Sooners will also have to contend with forward Jeremiah Tilmon, an athletic big in a similar mold to those who have hurt Oklahoma numerous times this year.

Tilmon, a Second Team All-SEC selection, added 12.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in Missouri’s 2020-21 campaign.

“He’s physical,” Brady Manek said. “He uses his body well, he’s strong, good post moves. He was one of those guys you got you got to come ready to play, you’ve got to play tough.

“He’s probably just as strong as (Kansas’ Udoka Azibuke), but he’s athletic like the guy from Texas (Jericho Sims). I mean, it’s just, he’s kind of got it both. He’s agile, he’s pretty good with the ball, pretty good passing it out, scoring, facing up, I mean, he does it all. He’s a good player and it’s going to be a tough challenge.”

Harmon’s absence may play a role in how Oklahoma matches up with Tilmon down low, however.

Kruger said Alondes Williams, Jalen Hill and Victor Iwuakor would all play a part in accounting for Harmon’s production, which will add more size to the lineup. Though their presence alone may not in itself provide a defensive spark, the extra length should help Oklahoma attempt to shore up the defensive boards, an area where the Sooners have struggled all year.

“De'Vion, he's pretty solid defensively,” Kruger said. “He works hard at getting ball pressure out front and (is a) pretty physical defender. I think Jalen and Alondes both, Jalen especially's got that feel for instinct defensively. We’d rather have De'Vion than not, that's for sure. But we will have more size on the floor now.”

Though it has been eight years since the Tigers bolted for the SEC, the two teams do have some recent history to educate them ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

OU topped Mizzou 77-66 last season in Kansas City, with Reaves dinging the Tigers for 19 points, Manek scoring 17 and Williams adding an additional 12.

But if Saturday’s game comes down to the wire, which almost all OU games have since Big 12 Conference play started, expect the ball to be in Reaves’ hands in the decisive moments. But without Harmon, Kruger said Reaves will have to step up and be that much better to help carry the Sooners.

Umoja Gibson and Jalen Hill 2021 NCAA Tournament Lucas Oil Stadium

Umoja Gibson and Jalen Hill

“Those two have kind of complemented each other oftentimes and yeah, Austin understands that and I’m sure he’ll be a big-time competitor and I’m sure he’ll be fired up and ready to do what he can,” Kruger said.

With his clutch play helping OU win seven of eight contests in January, Reaves has also played his part as Oklahoma lost five of its last six to close the season. Despite the immense pressure heaped on him in the closing moments of ballgames, Reaves said he’s just fine taking center stage down the stretch.

“Honestly, you're not going to make everybody happy regardless of what you are doing,” Reaves said. “You could be successful and still someone is not going to like what you are doing. You just have to look at it from that perspective. You can't really get too deep in what everyone else thinks about you because then it will weigh on you. Then you will be constantly thinking about those things that don't really matter as opposed to the things that do matter. 

"As a player, that's what you want. I'm all good with whatever people say about me, honestly.”

No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga likely waits in the wings for whomever emerges between the Tigers and Sooners, but with upsets already proving contagious in Indianapolis, the Sooners just want a shot to upend the nation’s best.

“It’s a good opportunity to be the best team in the country, and I think we have that opportunity,” Elijah Harkless said. “We work hard for it, practice every day hard, and I think we get one step closer on Saturday if we can go out there and play our best game.”