The Breakdown: The Oklahoma Sooners are back in the big dance for the first time in four years, set for a round of 64 matchup with the San Diego State Aztecs on Friday in Philadelphia at 8:20 PM CST. Oklahoma, led by Romero Osby (15.8 PPG 7 RPG), is the 10 seed, while San Diego State, led by Jamaal Franklin (16.7 PPG 9.5 RPG) is the seven seed.
-The Aztecs are no strangers to Sooners’ head coach Lon Kruger who compiled a 5-13 record against them during his tenure at UNLV. Even more familiar is Aztec coach Steve Fisher, who Kruger has a 6-14 all-time record against.
-Also acquainted with the foe is Sooners forward Amath M’Baye. M’Baye, a transfer from Wyoming, played SDSU regularly in the Mountain West Conference. He has logged 81 total minutes against the Aztecs in his career, averaging 8 points and 6.3 rebounds against them. Unfortunately, his record against them is 0-3.
-The Sooners and Aztecs have met only three times in history, with the Sooners winning in all three of those contests.
Previewing San Diego State
Hailing from out west, the Aztecs play a rigorous and physical style of basketball. They are not prone to scoring a lot of points, but boast one of the best defenses in the nation. Ken Pomeroy, renowned college basketball statistician, ranks SDSU as the 13th best defense in the nation. A plethora of quick, athletic guards hammer offenses for 40 minutes, in an effort to force turnovers. This is where having a point guard with the composure of Sam Grooms will come in handy for the Sooners. Grooms has been of aid when the Sooners need a press-breaker, and the Aztecs will more than likely throw a press at the Sooners at some point in the game.
Despite SDSU’s stellar defense, they have struggled against good offensive teams. The Aztecs are 6-7 against top 50 offenses this season, and just 2-7 in road/neutral games. This bodes well for the Sooners, who have the 35th best offense in the nation and, of course, the game is being played on a neutral court.
It’s a good thing the Aztecs have such a tenacious defense, because they are somewhat lackluster on offense. They rank as the 76th best offense according to Pomeroy, while averaging just 68.3 points a game. They don’t shoot the three particularly well (32.4%), but are a very good transition offense thanks to Jamaal Franklin. They are also one of the nation’s better rebounding teams, averaging 37 boards a game and outrebounding opponents by an average margin of 3.2.
Three Key Aztecs:
–Jamaal Franklin: The headliner of the group, Franklin is a guy with NBA-level talent. The Aztecs live and die as he does. He leads his team in points (16.7), rebounds (9.5), assists (3.2) and steals (1.5). He is long, quick and athletic, and thrives in transition—where he is the most exciting to watch. Just 6-foot-5, he is an excellent rebounder for his size, due to his leaping ability and acuity of positioning. The one way to stop Franklin is to limit his transition opportunities and force him to shoot jumpers. Franklin sure likes to shoot a lot of threes for somebody who can’t hit them. He attempts 4.6 long-range bombs per game yet only makes 1.2 of them. To further crunch the numbers: he shoots 26.1% from beyond the arc, yet still shoots 24% of his team’s total three point attempts—the second most of the team. In 21 of the 30 games he has played this season, he has hit one or zero threes, despite attempting an average of 3.9 threes in those games. If the Sooners can force him into shooting more, and Romero Osby and M’Baye can use their size to take away some of his rebounds, the Sooners have a good chance of winning.
–Chase Tapley: If there’s a guy you want attempting the last shot in a tight game, it’s Tapley. The sharpshooting guard has developed the persona of a “clutch guy” this season. He’s made countless threes in late-game situations this season, so if this one goes down to the wire—watch out Sooner fans. Even outside of the clutch, Tapley is a dangerous shooter, nailing 38% of his treys this season. Unlike Franklin, the Sooners will want to limit the number of threes he takes, because if he gets hot, he’s hard to stop.
–Xavier Thames: Thames appears to have turned it on at the right time. Over the last four games he is averaging 15.3 points on 45.4% from the floor. Behind Tapley, he is the team’s next best threat from deep, and is not afraid to let it fly. Thanks to his impeccable timing, the Sooners need to keep an eye on him and ensure that his streak—and season—stops here.
Sleeper- Winston Shepard: Shepard is a freshman forward, who, has had a relatively quiet season thus far for the Aztecs. No 20 point outings, nor much to look at, but he has put up solids numbers over the course of the year and shown flashes of a potentially dangerous player. When he scores nine or more points SDSU is 5-2 on the season. If he has even a solid game, it could open things up on the outside, and cause trouble for the Sooners. If not, then it will make life on the defensive end a lot easier.
Three Keys to Sooner Victory
–Steven Pledger: Pledger is the Sooners X-factor. During a stretch in which Pledger averaged 19 points near the end of February into early March, the Sooners were 5-1. After Pledger scored just two and eight points respectively in the next two games, the Sooners lost both contests. When he scores 15 or more points this season, Oklahoma is 10-1. He also adds an outside element to the Sooners game. Oklahoma is going to score in the post. SDSU has virtually no post game and Osby and M’Baye have been one of the best frontcourt tandems in their conference this season. If Pledger is draining threes, Oklahoma is unbeatable.
–Slow it Down: Neither team plays at all that frantic of a pace. According to Pomeroy, the Aztecs rank 125th in possessions per 40 minutes, while the Sooners rank 127th. However, the Sooners can’t afford to be caught in a transition game, especially with Franklin on the other side. If they want to limit SDSU’s points, they need to slow it up some from their normal pace.
–Attack the Glass: Win the rebounding battle and you have a good shot at winning the game. Most of the time, Franklin will grab a defensive board and start a break, which is how a lot of his points are scored. Oklahoma needs to do their best to emulate this, and prevent too many second chances for the Aztecs, as well as prevent it from happening on the other side of the ball. As mentioned, SDSU is a good rebounding team, so this will be no easy task.
Final Thoughts: This is a good matchup for the Sooners. They will have the overwhelming advantage in the post, which will lead to plenty of easy buckets. Offensively, they are a bad matchup for the Aztecs, who have struggled against similar teams this season. Defensively, they just need to prevent too many fast break scores. If Pledger can get it going from three, Oklahoma will advance to the round of 32 without question.
Score Prediction: Oklahoma 67 SDSU 60
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