The streak began in Dallas and, after 104 games and three seasons, has carried the Oklahoma Sooners to the Final Four in Houston.
Through it all, the Sooners have started the same nucleus of four veteran players in each contest: forward Ryan Spangler flanked by guards Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard.
The streak will reach 105 games Saturday night when Oklahoma (29-7) meets Villanova (33-5) at NRG Stadium (5:09 p.m., TNT), with the winner moving on to Monday’s national title game.
Ideally, the Sooners hope the streak ends with a confetti drop and a net-cutting ceremony after game No. 106, which will mark the last possible college game for the three seniors: Spangler, Hield and Cousins.
Woodard, a junior, has the option of returning next season. But he knows it would be impossible to recapture the level of trust and unspoken communication he shares with Hield and Cousins after a three-season run that began with an 82-73 victory over Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013 at American Airlines Center.
“It’s been crazy,” Woodard said Friday, summing up a three-season run of perfect health and consistent production that he considers “a blessing” for all four players involved.
“We don’t even have to say anything on the court now. Buddy and Isaiah, if I miss them on a pass, I just give them a head nod like, ‘I got you next time.’ Sometimes, I take it for granted because it comes so naturally. We’ve gotten to the point now where we’re a veteran team and we play for each other.”
In today’s college basketball environment, where one-and-done freshmen typically rule the Final Four, the Sooners have a foursome of veterans that stands apart from the norm. Spangler, a native of Bridge Creek, Okla., who began his college career at Gonzaga, is happy that he returned to his home state to be a part of it. He remembers the game, and the first win, vividly.
“It feels like a long time ago. We were young and didn’t know what we were doing,” Spangler said. “But that game kind of represents us. We were down 15 and came back and won. I think we’ve done that our whole career.”
During the streak, the Sooners’ veteran nucleus has a 76-28 record as starters. If they finish at 78-28, they will be remembered as the group that led OU to its first national championship in school history.
Hield, the nation’s top scorer still competing in the NCAA Tournament (25.4 avg.), was honored Friday with the United States Basketball Writers Association’s player of the year award, named in honor of NBA legend Oscar Robertson.
Hield picked up some hardware, as well as a huge compliment, from the award’s namesake, when Robertson was asked about Hield’s NBA future.
“No matter where he goes, he’s going to make a tremendous impact,” Robertson said.
North Carolina players are comfortable about their Final Four matchup against Syracuse, a team the Tar Heels defeated twice during the regular season.
“It’s great for us, just to know what we can expect. We’re well-prepared for it,” North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks said.
Villanova players said it took them at least 10 minutes to adjust to the depth perception of shooting in a domed football stadium, an issue that eventually subsided.
But guard Josh Hart conceded Friday that he is not as comfortable as he would prefer while hoisting jumpers in NRG Stadium.
“It’s weird to see the hoop in such a big arena. You kind of feel like you’re on a stage, with the court being elevated,” Hart said. “It was weird at first.”