Experience comes in many forms.
What Ole Miss players lack in NCAA tournament experience they believe they’ll make up for in the minutes they’ve played together in one of the nation’s biggest turnaround seasons.
It’s Oklahoma with the edge in tournament games as the Sooners play another as the 9 seed against No. 8 seed Ole Miss in a South Region first-round game today at 11:40 a.m. at Colonial Life Arena.
The Sooners are playing in the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in seven seasons including a Final Four appearance in 2016.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, has played in the NCAA tournament just eight times in its history.
It’s a history that coach Kermit Davis is trying to change. In his first season the Rebels (20-12) are plus-eight in the win column from last year’s 12-20 finish.
Ole Miss, predicted to finish last in the SEC, has the largest turnaround of any Power Five conference school and the No. 11 turnaround among all schools.
That experience will count for something, players say.
“We’re three guys who have been playing with each other for quite some time,” said Terence Davis as he, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler looked out to a gathering of media before Thursday’s open practice. “We don’t have any experience in the NCAA tournament, but we do have experience together. We’ll be OK.”
The Sooners were a 10 seed when they lost 83-78 to 7 seed Rhode Island last season.
Freshman point guard Jamal Bieniemy is the only OU starter who has not played in an NCAA tournament game, but it’s been since 2016 that Final Four run that the Sooners have won.
Rashard Odomes, Christian James and Jamuni McNeace, all seniors, helped OU defeat VCU, Texas A&M and Oregon before losing 95-51 to Villanova.
McNeace and James played 12 minutes in that Final Four game.
“Sixty-eight teams are playing, 290 aren’t. It’s a great experience for the guys never to be taken for granted. I know these guys aren’t going to take it for granted,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
Oklahoma, is athletic though not quite as guard-oriented as Ole Miss.
James, a 6-foot-4 guard, was third-team All-Big 12. He leads the Sooners with 14.4 points a game. Brady Manek, a 6-9 shooting forward, averages 12.0 points, athletic center Kristian Doolittle 11.2 and 7.0 rebounds.
Kermit Davis led Idaho to two NCAA tournaments and Middle Tennessee to three. Assistant coaches Win Case and Ronnie Hamilton were with him when the Blue Raiders knocked off Michigan State in 2016 and Minnesota in 2017.
“I told our team last night, ‘Guys you’ve been tested in every way possible that a college team could be tested by what you went through in an 18-game (SEC) schedule,’” coach Kermit Davis said. “The biggest thing is to stay true to yourself, do what you do, and don’t try to go out of character.”
The No. 5 seed Mississippi State men’s basketball team opens play in the NCAA Tournament in San Jose, California, at 6:27 p.m. on Friday in a game that will also be shown on truTV.
It is State’s 12th trip to the Big Dance and first since losing in the first round to Washington 71-58 in the 2009 Portland Regional. The Bulldogs are 11-10 overall in the event with their best showing coming in 1996 when they reached the Final Four.
Liberty qualified for the NCAA Tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament. The Flames are 28-6 on the year and tied with Lipscomb for the regular season ASUN Conference title.
Three of Liberty’s losses — Vanderbilt, Alabama and Austin Peay — were teams that the Bulldogs beat this season. MSU has only played the Flames once previously, winning 78-67 in the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico on Dec. 19, 2005.
It has been an especially long journey for MSU seniors Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman. Weatherspoon and Holman did not experience a winning record or postseason play until last season, but were able to lead the Bulldogs to a 23-10 mark in their final year.
“Me and Q came here with a goal,” Holman said. “We knew the program was struggling when we first got here but we kept our word, stayed true to our ground and promised that we were going to get it back on top. We’re proud of each other and our team, coaches and everybody that believed in us and helped us get back to this stage.”
Howland has experience against Liberty coach Ritchie McKay. The two matched wits while both were coaching in the Big Sky Conference while Howland was at Northern Arizona and McKay was at Portland State.