The No. 3-seeded Oklahoma Sooners are in position to reach their first Elite Eight in six years, but in order to get there they’ll have to topple maybe the toughest out the NCAA tournament has ever seen in the No. 7-seeded Michigan State Spartans. Friday night’s East Region semifinal takes place at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, and the winner advances to the Elite Eight where the school will face either No. 4 Louisville or No. 8 N.C. State in the regional final Sunday.
The Sooners (24-10) wound up in third in the Big-12, but their record and finish takes on some luster when taking into account the number of quality opponents head coach Lon Kruger’s squad has faced this season. Oklahoma played nationally ranked teams 14 times this season, claiming eight victories, and now can parlay that big game experience into its first Elite Eight appearance since 2009.
Perennial tournament contenders no matter their seeding, the Spartans (25-11) squared off against eight ranked opponents this season, only to go 2-6 in the process. However head coach Tom Izzo had his team ready for the Big Ten tournament, and Michigan State nearly dethroned top seed Wisconsin before falling 80-69 in overtime in the conference tournament title game.
Izzo’s gone 44-16 all-time in the tournament, taking the Spartans to the Sweet 16 seven of the last eight years, and Kruger acknowledged his counterpart’s immense success.
"He's won more games there probably in the last decade than anyone else has, certainly in the Tournament," Kruger said to The Detroit News. "His teams always play well. He's got that winning culture. When you get that culture that he helped develop, Tom has taken it to another level clearly."
Michigan State is looking for its second straight trip to the Elite Eight, and first back-to-back appearance since 2010, but also faces a gauntlet of a team in the Sooners.
Big-12 Player of the Year and junior guard Buddy Heild scored 15 points apiece in the Sooners first two tournament victories over No. 14 Albany and No. 11 Dayton, and has totaled seven assists, seven rebounds and two steals so far.
Not really possessing a ton of size, sophomore Jordan Woodward and junior Isaiah Cousins round out Oklahoma’s top batch of guards, and senior forward TaShawn Thomas has helped control the interior beside junior forward and rebounding leader Ryan Spangler.
Thomas led Oklahoma with 18 points and four blocked shots against the Great Danes, and Spangler plucked 11 rebounds. All told the Sooners have a significant edge over the Spartans on the boards, ranking No. 23 in the nation to their No. 36.
However, Michigan State is coming off an excellent all-around 60-54 victory over No. 2 Virginia, powered by guard Travis Trice’s 23 points and forward Branden Dawson finishing with 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
Trice and Dawson, both seniors, are joined with junior forward Denzel Valentine as the Spartans main offensive weapons. Valentine is second on the team in scoring (14.5), rebounding (6.1), and assists (4.4), but was limited to four points and 21 minutes against the Cavaliers due to foul trouble.
Start Time: 10:07 p.m. ET
TV Channel: TBS
Live Online Stream: A live online stream is available at the tournament’s official site here.
Betting Odds: Michigan State -2.5
Over/Under: 135 points
Prediction: Oklahoma over Michigan State, 79-77