Gargantuan task lies ahead for Oklahoma vs. unbeaten Gonzaga

Taking the court against the No. 1 overall seed Bulldogs, the Sooners look to punch their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen
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INDIANAPOLIS — The Oklahoma Sooners are officially playing with house money.

After dispatching old Big 12 Conference rival Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Sooners get to keep dancing and extend their stay in the bubble.

Their reward?

A Monday matinee in Hinkle Fieldhouse with the No. 1-overall seed and still undefeated Gonzaga (27-0 overall, 15-0 West Coast Conference) for a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Is OU (16-10, 9-8 Big 12) up for the challenge? No one else has been.

Not only have the Bulldogs won every single game this season, they’ve overwhelmed a vast majority of their opponents.

Averaging an eye-popping 92.5 points per game, Mark Few’s Bulldogs attack the opposition in waves while holding teams to just 68.6 points a game. 

Four different players average double-digit scoring, and a fifth adds another 9.0 points per contest.

“They’ve got so many weapons,” OU coach Lon Kruger said in a video press conference on Sunday. “They just play and it’s hard to sit on any one thing. You take one thing away and they are able to slide over to something else that’s effective for them.”

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs has drawn most of the headlines as he is projected to be a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, but he is merely the third leading scorer for the Bulldogs, posting 14.0 points a game.

“They’ve got a lot of good players,” senior forward Brady Manek said. “They’ve got several that are averaging double figures and they are really good in the paint, a lot of good shooters, it’s going to be a tough team to play against.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with one player in particular. I think it’s a team thing and they’re a really good team, so we’ve got to come ready to play.”

A pair of lengthy forwards actually lead the way for the Bulldogs in Corey Kispert and Drew Timme.

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Kispert, an excellent stretch big, paces the Bulldogs by averaging 19.3 points per game and knocking down 45.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. The Sooners will have to pay close attention to the 6-foot-7 forward as he drifts beyond the arc.

While Kispert pours it on from deep, Timme is content to dominate in the paint. Second on the team, averaging 18.4 points per game, Timme leads the Bulldogs with 7.1 rebounds per game. Timme's contributions help Gonzaga dominate the boards, winning the rebounding battle by 7.9 rebounds on average.

"In the half court, you have to try and keep the ball out of the paint," Kruger said. "They're the best at getting to the paint and playing from the paint."

Throw in contributions of 11.9 points from Joel Ayayi and 9.0 points from Andrew Nembhard, and it’s easy to see why the Bulldogs have flat out dominated almost all challengers.

“We’ve got to do a good job of trying to congest and get a crowd around the ball,” Kruger said. “But then they shoot the ball well, so you’ve got to choose your poison a little bit, but yeah do a good job in all those areas.”

Elijah Harkless and Brady Manek 

Elijah Harkless and Brady Manek 

And if the West Coast Conference Champions weren’t already hard enough to guard in the half court, the active hands by the Bulldog defenders lead to 8.3 steals per game, allowing the No. 1 team in the country to get out and run in transition.

"You've got to do a good job of keeping them out of transition, and that starts with having a good possession offensively ourselves," Kruger said. "If we have a live ball turnover or a quick shot or bad shot, then that is the trigger for their transition.

“They’re probably the best team in the country of playing downhill."

As was the case against Missouri, the Sooners may get a little help matching up defensively as a result of the one man they cannot deploy on Monday afternoon.

Sophomore guard De’Vion Harmon will miss his second straight game after testing positive for COVID-19, forcing Kruger to replace him with the revolving door of Jalen Hill, Alondes Williams and Victor Iwuakor, who all bring additional height to the lineup.

The tradeoff, of course, comes on the offensive end. 

Already an offense prone to sputtering for stretches of games, Oklahoma will be without its second-leading scorer.

“We don’t want it to get into the 90s for sure, we’ve had trouble being consistent offensively,” Kruger said. “We’ve got to get good shots every time down. Whether that’s one pass, 7-8 passes, we just can’t settle for something that triggers more possessions in the ballgame.”

In Harmon’s absence, Manek stepped up Saturday, alongside Austin Reaves and Elijah Harkless, to carry the load offensively for OU. The trio combined for 58 of Oklahoma’s 72 points against Missouri, and they’ll have to produce another efficient scoring effort as the Sooners look to slow down the proceedings.

Elijah Harkless

Elijah Harkless

Gonzaga might throw Kruger's Sooners a bone in the form of some extra possessions. Turning the ball over 12.1 times a game, OU will have to crank up its defensive intensity to another level to try and capitalize on any mistakes.

Additionally, the Sooners will have to take care of the ball like they did on Saturday night, when they only surrendered six turnovers to the Tigers.

However, the biggest advantage the Sooners take into Monday is their tendency to live in close games all year long. While Few’s Bulldogs have blown out almost all of their opponents, OU has played in 13 games decided by five points or less compared to just one of Gonzaga’s contests.

“We’ve just got to play hard,” Manek said. “We’ve just got to come ready to play. We didn’t come ready to play in that first four or five minutes (versus Missouri), and that kind of kept us in it there the rest of the game.

“We just gotta play hard, a come-out-and-hit-them-first type mentality and do what we do best.”

To Gonzaga’s credit, the lack of close contests has been a byproduct of outclassing opponents in almost every single outing. 

The last time the Bulldogs were pushed was in the West Coast Conference title game against BYU. After the Cougars tied the game at 73 with 4:20 to play, Gonzaga closed on a 15-5 run to remain unblemished.

Jalen Hill

Jalen Hill

Though trying to compare common opponents is an imperfect practice at best, Gonzaga did cross a pair of Big 12 foes in its non-conference slate.

Easily dispatching the Kansas Jayhawks 102-90 in their season opener at the end of November, the Bulldogs played their closest game of the year against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Jimmy V Classic from Indianapolis at the start of December.

Ultimately winning 87-82, Gonzaga had a tall task dealing with Mountaineer big men Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe.

The Sooners combined to go 3-2 against Kansas and West Virginia this year, although their season sweep of the Mountaineers came after Tshiebwe opted out of the season and announced his intentions to transfer to Kentucky.

But OU does't have to contend with the totality of Gonzaga's dominant season on Monday afternoon. Instead, the Sooners just have to beat the Bulldogs once to punch their ticket to their 12th Sweet Sixteen.

Though much easier said than done, Manek believes the Sooners have what it takes to pull the upset.

“I think that we can win,” he said. “We’ve been top 10 this year, we’ve beaten plenty of teams that are just as good as Gonzaga. So I mean, we’re going into this game like we’ve got nothing to lose. They’re beatable and we got to just play basketball and leave it all out there.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 1:40 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on CBS.