Oklahoma can eliminate the Southeastern Conference with a win over Texas A&M Thursday night in the Sweet Sixteen.
The No. 2 seeded Sooners travel to Anaheim, California, for a 6:37 p.m. tipoff with the Aggies, who previously played in the Big 12 Conference.
OU got to the Sweet Sixteen with a 85-81 win over VCU. Sooner All American Buddy Hield scored 36 points – 19 in the final eight minutes – for Oklahoma to advance.
Kruger described Hield as perhaps the best player in the nation.
“He’s got really great focus at that moment when the shot needed to be made or a play needed to be made,” Kruger said. “He’s done it so many times for us throughout his career and especially this year and again today. It seemed like every shot that he had that we needed, he stepped up and made it. And it’s not that easy to do, especially with the defense leaning on you and targeting you. Buddy has been terrific with that at that moment, those moments all year long.”
No. 3 seeded A&M was behind by 10 points with less than a minute left Sunday night and managed to force two overtimes and beat No. 11 seeded Northern Iowa 92-88.
Hield was 11 of 20 overall from the floor, including 6 of 14 from downtown. Hield’s 36 points were one shy of the OU NCAA Tournament record (Stacey King scored 37 vs. Auburn in the round of 32 in 1988). It marked the highest point total by any player in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
VCU coach Will Wade praised Hield and the Sooners.
“Today we ran into a great team,” Wade said. “Unbelievable performance by Hield there down the stretch. Every time they needed a big basket, he answered the bell. He’s just a phenomenal player. Best player I’ve seen in college basketball. So I’m proud of our guys. We just didn’t quite have enough.”
Hield said playing in front an OU crowd in Oklahoma City on Sunday was a plus.
“The crowd helped us a lot,” Hield said. “Even when VCU came out and they ran their run, I know their crowd had the momentum going on. And I felt like Jordan (Woodard) carried us a little bit. For the first five minutes, he was able to make plays for us and get the crowd back involved. The crowd was there all night, and us making shots and them being there helped us build up momentum and keep us to keep going.”
“It was great being able to play in Oklahoma City,” Woodard said. “The fans came out and they were strong down the stretch when we made our run. Buddy hit some big shots down the stretch and that got the crowd in the game. So playing in Oklahoma, it was great to finish it off strong.”
Texas A&M is the last Southeastern Conference team in the field. No. 1 seeded Kansas, No. 3 seeded Iowa State and OU give the Big 12 three teams in the Sweet Sixteen. The ACC leads the way with six teams remaining.
“We’ve played Oklahoma a couple years ago,” said A&M coach Billy Kennedy. “I know Buddy Hield. We recruited him. We know their roster. Coach Kruger is like a mentor to me. I’ve known him forever and look up to him in so many ways. A first class guy, great coach. I think they’re a tough match-up because everybody they put on the floor can score, and it ought to be a heck of a game.
“… against Oklahoma. You’ve got to score. We’ve got to do a much better job of scoring than we did tonight. But just the flow, the pace of the game that they play is kind of like we like to play a little bit. We’ve got to take advantage of Tyler Davis and get him the ball inside against a good Oklahoma team.”
Can A&M stop Hield?
“I don’t know if you shut Buddy down. I mean, nobody’s been able to do it,” Kennedy said. “You’ve got to guard the other guys too. It’s a unique way. Coach (Kruger) has done an unbelievable job. Buddy looks like he’s calling plays to coach, and coach says, okay, yeah, Buddy. I mean, they’ve got an unbelievable relationship, and he’s been successful doing that all year.
“But their other players are really good. Spangler, man, is a tough kid. We played Jordan Woodard. There are so many brothers we recruited, gave us fits when we played them in the Toyota Center just a couple years ago.
“Coach played a 1-3-1, and it was against most of these guys, Buddy Hield, Woodard and Cousins, so we’re very familiar with them. Ought to be a heck of a game, but we’re going to have to play a lot better against this team to march on.”
Who will guard Hield?
“Our team,” said A&M’s Alex Caruso. “It’s going to take a team effort. There’s not one guy. I’m not good enough to guard him by myself.
” I don’t think anybody else on our team would say they were. We’ll just be ready to take care of him and the rest of the guys that are shooting 50 percent from three, too. We’ll be ready to go, though. It will take a full team effort just like tonight.”