For players and coaches at Texas A&M and Oklahoma, a Sweet 16 matchup between the two highly seeded teams could be finalized Sunday night in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
But with an unprecedented rash of upsets dominating the first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, both groups spoke passionately Saturday about being aware of the challenges they will face from a pair of double-digit seeds standing in the path of that potential matchup.
No. 2 Oklahoma (26-7) meets No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth (25-10) at 4:15 p.m. in its second-round contest. No. 3 A&M (27-8) plays the late game of the doubleheader, against No. 11 Northern Iowa (23-12). Both double-digit seeds are on the docket because they upset higher-seeded teams Friday, completing an opening round that saw a record 10 schools with double-digit seeds win first-round games.
The Aggies and Sooners took notice and vowed Saturday to prepare well enough to avoid joining a long list of high-profile favorites who already have been bounced from March Madness.
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“It shows you can’t take any team lightly,” A&M forward Jalen Jones said of the upset-filled event. “Every team in this tournament is really good. Every night, you have to be locked in and ready to go.”
OU guard Buddy Hield said having so many recent upsets should help the remaining favorites maintain a proper perspective.
“I feel like watching those games helped us to not slip up,” Hield said, reflecting on Friday’s 82-68 victory over Cal State-Bakersfield. “It helped us to stay focused and locked in every possession. We have to compete and we’re coming in expecting to win.”
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said he’s stressed one basic principle to his squad since the tournament began.
“The seeding number doesn’t really mean as much this year,” said Kruger, who described VCU as a team that would compete well in the Big 12. “There is so much balance. Our guys have total respect for VCU and they certainly aren’t thinking about them being the lower seeded team at all. That doesn’t enter our minds.”
VCU coach Will Wade said his team spent Saturday working on perimeter defense to limit Oklahoma’s long-range marksmen after watching from the stands during the Sooners’ victory over Cal State-Bakersfield.
“I feel like their fans are disappointed when they hit a ‘two,’ ” Wade said.
Oklahoma made 11 of 20 shots from beyond the arc in Friday’s game, including 9-of-14 by starting guards Buddy Hield (3-of-6), Jordan Woodard (3-of-5) and Isaiah Cousins (3-of-3).
Texas coach Shaka Smart and his players were stunned by Friday night’s dramatic end to Smart’s first season in Austin.
A midcourt heave at the buzzer by Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson banked in for the deciding points in the Panthers’ 75-72 victory that allowed UNI to advance to Sunday’s game against Texas A&M. Texas’ season ended with a 20-13 mark and an empty feeling.
“When the shot left his hand, I didn’t know if it was in, but it looked like it was a real chance,” Smart said of Jesperson’s half-court attempt. “Our guys kind of got out of the way a little bit because they didn’t want to foul. If you could have that play back, you try to make it tougher on him. But the kid made a shot from half-court, so you’ve got to give him credit.”
Asked about his first season, Smart said: “I’m just disappointed about the loss. We’re certainly going to have to get more consistent as we move forward.”
Jesperson said Saturday that his cell phone has been overworked with congratulatory messages since the shot went through the net. Friends and family, he said, have been “going crazy. It’s awesome.”
For the senior guard, the dramatic game-winner was not a career first.
“I made one like that in high school,” Jesperson said. “Obviously, it’s not as big as this. This feels great.”
Will Wade, 33, is one of the nation’s youngest coaches in Division I.
Although he said that helps him relate to players, it created an issue during the team’s stay in Oklahoma City when the bus driver assigned to drive the Rams around town mistook him for a player.
“I said, ‘No, sir, I’m the head coach,’ ” said Wade, who spent two seasons as coach at Chattannooga before taking over at VCU after Shaka Smart accepted the Texas job. “He said, ‘Really, you’re making the decisions here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ But he liked it when I paid for dinner. I had the credit card.”
Kruger, 63, chuckled when told the story about the coach he will face in Sunday’s second-round matchup. Asked if he’d ever been mistaken for one of his players, a smiling Kruger said: “Not lately. Maybe 40 years ago. But I can see that happening to Will.”