One Last Dance for OU's Final Four Trio
Advancing to college basketball's biggest stage during your rookie season understandably can lead to lofty expectations in the years that follow. Immediate success also can become a dangerous proposition.
“We wonder about that as coaches sometimes,” Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger admitted. “You have that success right out of the gate as a freshman and you think that's the way it always works. But these guys know it's not quite that simple.”
Shooting guards Christian James and Rashard Odomes and center Jamuni McNeace were freshmen on the OU team that advanced to the 2016 Final Four. (Forward Matt Freeman was a redshirt freshman that season.) Their magical journey transpired thanks primarily to a talented trio of seniors in national Player of the Year Buddy Hield, guard Isaiah Cousins and forward Ryan Spangler.
“That was a very special team,” James recalled. “We had all the right pieces. We had a scorer. We had bigs who could rebound, box out and things like that. It was an all-around great year for us.”
"Going (to the NCAA Tournament) three out of four years is pretty big...We got in and we're ready to face anybody. We're going to come out swinging.”
- Christian James
Three years later, James, Odomes and McNeace are now seniors looking for their first postseason victory since advancing to that Final Four in Houston.
An 80-68 victory over Oregon at the 2016 NCAA West Regional Final in Anaheim, Calif., is the last time the Sooners won a postseason game.
OU plummeted to an 11-20 overall record after the departure of Hield and Co. and closed down shop with an opening-round loss in the Big 12 Tournament.
Last season, buoyed by the play of Wayman Tisdale Award winner (Freshman of the Year) Trae Young, the Sooners jumped out to a 14-2 start to the season and hung on to capture an NCAA bid with an 18-13 overall record. Then came an 83-78 overtime loss to Rhode Island in the opening round.
This season, the No. 9-seeded Sooners (19-13 overall, 7-11 Big 12) will open against No. 8-seeded Mississippi (20-12, 10-8 SEC) at 11:40 a.m. CT on Friday (truTV) at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.
James, Odomes and McNeace all agree time has flown since their Final Four run.
James: “Seems short. Years went by fast.”
Odomes: “Went by quick.”
McNeace: “Man, it seems like yesterday.”
Asked what first comes to mind when he thinks of the 2016 team, without hesitation McNeace said, “Buddy just going off. Seemed like he did it all the time. I don't know how else to describe it. He was carrying us.”
Friday's opening-round game against Ole Miss will be Christian James' sixth NCAA Tournament game. This will be the final postseason run for he and Final Four teammates Rashard Odomes and Jamuni McNeace.
Odomes recalled the unenviable task of trying to defend Hield (25.0 points; 5.7 rebounds) and Cousins (12.6 points; 4.5 rebounds; 4.5 assists) in practice.
“Having experienced all that with Christian and Jamuni and growing from there, I think it set the tone for our careers,” Odomes said. “We saw Buddy go off every night, every practice. We got used to it after a while, but you were still amazed, so it was great.”
McNeace also noted the solid play of junior point guard Jordan Woodard (13.0 points; 3.3 assists; 3.0 rebounds). “You could see how much they wanted it and how much they worked for it,” McNeace said of the upperclassmen.
“Everything was clicking (with the Final Four team) and I feel that this team can do that with the right focus in every game on every possession,” said James, who leads this year's Sooners in scoring (14.4) and is second in rebounds (6.3).
The affable Hield showed a special interest in James. “He took me under his wing, showed me how to score, how to pick my spots,” James said of Hield. “He definitely helped me out a lot.”
James played 35 games off the bench that year, which is the fourth-highest total for a freshman in school history. “It felt good getting to play,” James said. “I just wanted to do anything to help my team. I just wanted to be out on the court.”
After starting the first seven games this season, McNeace has been limited with a nagging injury to his right foot and ankle, which he originally suffered during practice in early December.
“That was really disappointing for him,” Kruger said of McNeace's injury. “We thought he was really going to take off this season and keep making progress. It was disappointing not to be able to see him take that final step.” (McNeace returned to practice on Tuesday, but remains limited.)
In his fifth year with the program, Jamuni McNeace has been a part of two Sweet 16 squads and the 2016 Final Four run.
McNeace reinjured the foot in last Wednesday's opening-round Big 12 Tournament loss to West Virginia and said he's been hobbled both physically and psychologically this season. “It hurt me, hurt my confidence a little bit when I first tried to come back and realized I couldn't move as well,” McNeace said. “I tried to play through it and do what I could.”
Meanwhile, a healthy James has started all 32 games this season (63 straight games the last two seasons), while Odomes started 13 of the last 15.
OU is one of just 13 major-conference schools (of 75 teams) that have advanced to six of the last seven NCAA tournaments.
The Sooners went 12-1 against non-conference teams this season and never faced a “Quadrant 4” opponent, a schedule that undoubtedly was the reason they made the NCAA field despite being four games under .500 in Big 12 play.
This trio of seniors is hoping their third NCAA appearance begins the same way their debut did – with a victory.
“Going (to the NCAA Tournament) three out of four years is pretty big,” James said. “Just don't take it for granted. Make the best out of it. We got in and we're ready to face anybody. We're going to come out swinging.”