When Oklahoma walked out onto the floor Thursday at at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, Umoja Gibson looked up — and that’s when it hit him.
“Like, you just get that feel,” Gibson said, “like, ‘Dang, this is big time.’”
Thursday — and Saturday, of course, when the No. 8-seed Sooners meet 9-seed Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — are one of the big reasons why Gibson chose to transfer away from North Texas, and also one reason why Elijah Harkless chose to leave Cal State Northridge.
HOW TO WATCH: 8 OU vs. 9 Missouri — Saturday, 6:25 p.m., TNT
Their decision last year to transfer to OU changed the face of the Sooners’ roster and augmented the program’s trajectory. They’ve both been invaluable additions to the OU backcourt.
Gibson is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.5 points per game, averages 3.2 rebounds, has 30 assists and 32 steals, and leads the Sooners in 3-point shooting at 41.5 percent. Harkless is fifth on the squad at 7.8 points per game, ranks third at 5.0 rebounds per game, third with 50 assists and leads the Sooners with 41 steals and an old-school defensive toughness.
But Oklahoma has changed them, too.
“They’ve made the tournament the past, what, seven of eight years,” Gibson said, “so it’s in their DNA to go to the tournament.”
Northridge’s NCAA Tournament history is sparse, with appearances in 2001 and 2009. The Matadors are 0-2.
North Texas’ only journeys into March Madness were 1988, 2007 and 2010. The Mean Green are 0-3.
(Ironically for Gibson, North Texas won the 2021 Conference USA Tournament and automatically qualified for this year’s NCAA field; they play Purdue on Friday night — also at Lucas Oil Stadium.)
Harkless was similarly impacted when he stepped into the Sooners’ only pre-tournament practice and looked around.
“It was crazy just seeing all the banners and just knowing coach (Lon) Kruger has been there before and just knowing the players,” Harkless said.
But the full magnitude of the whole thing landed on Harkless from elsewhere.
“My friends who texted me, ‘Man, you're really in the tournament,’ ” Harkless said. “I think that's what really got to me more than me actually being there. My friends, my teammates — I used to watch this growing up, and it's like, you're really here. So I just savor the opportunity and make the best of it.”
Harkless and Gibson plan to do more than just look up at the banners and play a game against Missouri. Their goal — even with starting guard De’Vion Harmon out for the weekend because of a positive COVID test, and even with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga likely waiting in the second round on Monday — is to win.
And keep winning.
“It’s a good opportunity to be the best team in the country,” Harkless said, “and I think we have the opportunity just as good as anybody else does in the country. 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.”
“It’s just always been a dream,” Gibson said, “to play in March Madness.”